review: mahsuri: a legend reborn


I found out about this retelling of Mahsuri from Facebook, where you can contact the author and buy it directly from him. I was really excited to read this because it was the first retelling of the legendary tale Mahsuri that's in the English language(that I've found). I've always hoped that there would be more retellings of legendary Malaysian tales in English, because we seriously have really great stories (based on what I've learnt in Bahasa Melayu literature). I think my expectations were a little too high(or i was just too excited), because unfortunately, i didn't really enjoy this book. There are some things that I did like about it, but for the most part I'm sorry to say that it could have been a lot better. I'm rating this book 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Ma Xing, an accidental mariner, gets caught up in a frankenstorm and a cosmic time-fracture on his recce trip to the Bujang Valley from Melaka. He is washed ashore to Langkawi where he meets Mahsuri in bizarre circumstances. They get to share experiences and knowledge in their occasional rendezvous: Ma Xing on his exotic travels, and Mahsuri touching on Islamic spirituality. Malay culture and herbal cure. This arouses the jealousy of Dzulkarnain, the son of the Langkawi overlord, and also Mahsuri's spiteful mother-in-law. Dzulkarnain has been seething when Mahsuri's father. who created the Keris Langkawi, chose the timorous Mat Derus over him. Then, there is Khatijah, one of Dzulkarnain's women, who fancies Ma Xing. Ma Xing wins the chief's gratitude when he helps to overcome the drought using the Magic Square system. But Dzulkarnain has dark plans. He seeks the help of the witch in Pulau Dayang Bunting who predicted several strange omens. With war drums beating with the approach of the Siamese army under the blood-thirsty Ramkaheang, Mahsuri in child-birth has a surprise visitor. All the witch's prophecies such as fishes that could walk and snakes that could fly, have come to pass. When Mahsuri is executed, white blood oozes out, vindicating her innocence and purity. She curses the island for seven generations. The devastation of the war is incalculable. The only link to the past is a silver qilin pendant...

The Plot

I think the plot was pretty great, but I can't credit the author much for it because the main plot did seem similar to the original tale. I quite liked that the book didn't start off too slow and that it didn't take that long for the characters to meet one another. However, the last third of the book really bored me when concerning the war plans between Langkawians and the Siamese. To be honest I skipped a lot of those paragraphs because i didn't feel like it was that relevant to Mahsuri's story, which was what I was more interested in. The only part that kinda made me go "whoah" was a shocking scene where one of the characters got raped and it was kinda weird and confusing and creepy. Oh and also at the end about what happened to Ma Xing, that was confusing but i liked it. 
At the end of the book i had two questions i wish i could discuss with someone: 
[SPOILERS]
1. Who's child was Mahsuri's kid? Mat Derus's or Dzulkarnains?
2. What was Ma Xing, and did the whole thing actually happen to him?

The writing

Ah, the part that I had the most issues with. I really appreciate the author trying to include Malaysian history, culture and lingo, but for me it was just too much and a lot of it was unnecessary. A person who never grew up in Malaysia probably would feel they're being overloaded with strange facts. I also didn't like the way the author did it. Whenever a Malay term came up, there would be a brief explanation in brackets after the word about what it is. This really disrupted the flow of my reading. It could have been done in better ways; using footnotes or just explaining subtly in the next sentence or elaborating about it as a description. I also didn't like the style of writing in general. It seemed more of a verbal storytelling than a written story (as in grammatically i don't think some of the sentence structures were correct, but it would sound correct if spoken out loud with intonation). The writing was also very flat and didn't make me emotional in any way. I felt like a lot of big words were used that felt a little too out of place. Sometimes the dialogues even had big words and it just didn't sound like the characters would really talk like that.

Other than that, the world building was very confusing and inconsistent. At first i got the vibe that the time setting was in the early centuries(i cant remember exactly which century the legend was set in), but then there were random modern words(especially medical and scientific terms) being used, and things like Barbie and a reference to the 9/11 twin towers. So then i figured that maybe it IS set in the modern setting only Tanah Melayu probably is still very traditional and wasn't conquered by any country. But THEN at the end it was the year 2000 after generations had passed. So i am VERY confused.

I did like a few things though. Firstly, the setting was actually pretty decent. Ive always wanted to read a book with the traditional old Tanah Melayu days and culture. It kinda feels like a fantasy setting but set in Asia. Other than that, this book was actually pretty "adult". Although the descriptions were disturbingly direct, I liked that the author didn't make the characters unrealistically pure and innocent like in typical books.

Characters 
I didn't feel attached to a single character, not even Mahsuri. The guys were sex-crazed assholes and Ma Xing himself wasn't that likeable. But the fact that the characters weren't at all perfect was good. 

All in all, i applaud the author for trying to write a retelling and wanting to include a lot of history and culture into it. Perhaps if there was more editing for the writing it could be a lot better and i might enjoy it more. I feel bad for being the first person to review this on Goodreads and giving a lot of criticism, but that's my honest opinion. Somebody else may completely disagree with me of course :)

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