Who Are the Monsters?: Class and Cruelty in Tanvi Berwah’s Monsters Born and Made

Books Reviews Tanvi Berwah
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Who <i>Are</i> the Monsters?: Class and Cruelty in Tanvi Berwah&#8217;s <i>Monsters Born and Made</i>

Settling on a new planet gives the appearance of offering humanity a new chance to be something better: to overcome established battles for power, to resist the temptation to raise one group above the others. On Ophir, the planet where Tanvi Berwah’s Monsters Born and Made is set, humanity may have once had that chance. The Empyrean Elders and their technology brought people to this new world with great hopes. But despite the harsh landscape and the monstrous creators that inhabit the islands where humanity landed, they’ve still divided themselves into a strict caste system: Landers ruling over Renters, with a single family of Hunters stuck in the middle.

Koral Hunter was given schooling among the Landers, but is beholden to the same rules as the Renters, stuck outside under the same hot sun, denied the underground structures and sun protections the Landers enjoy. Koral’s family have been Hunters for generations, given the single task of hunting maristag, dangerous and beautiful creatures that can run on land and live within Ophir’s dangerous waters. Every four years, the Landers race maristag-drawn chariots in the Glory Race, a deadly competition for the title of Champion, which grants a fortune to the winner.

Already stuck between worlds, despised by Renters for her family’s slightly higher station and looked down on by wealthy Landers, Koral’s life suddenly gets worse when their stables have only one maristag left for the year. Without a mate for her, there will be no maristag foals. But the last hunt goes badly, injuring Koral’s brother, Emrik, and putting the family deeper in debt. With Koral’s sister, Liria, already sick from a wasting disease, the family cannot afford to go without, or live on the tiny stipend the Landers will give them. Denied a loan, blacklisted from the black market, and threatened with her father’s order to enter the marriage draft, Koral’s running out of options.

So she enters the Glory Race, which has no rules prohibiting a Renter from participating. And things go from complicated to dangerous to deadly as Koral tries to turn her family’s fate.

There are many familiar tropes within the pages of the novel, but Berwah offers a delightfully fresh take on some of the issues within this subgenre. For example, after Koral decides to race, Emrik confronts her:

“Why the Glory Race? … We could become smugglers for Bitterbloom. Not at the Warehouse after the blacklisting but she always needs people on other islands. Crossing the waters won’t be a big deal for us. But instead, you entered the Race. Why?”

In so many novels, the young hero seems “forced” into the dangerous, glorious option, and while those plots run ahead at a fast enough speed that it’s easy to just accept it and move along with the narrative. But here, Berwah forces us to look at that decision. Why the Glory Race? Why not something more sensible, something less public-facing, something safer? It takes Koral most of the book to realize why this is the course she’s chosen, and her resolution to that question is ultimately very satisfying.

Beyond Koral’s family, the novel’s large cast of characters includes Koral’s best friend, Crane, the illegitimate daughter of a Lander father who sends her a monthly stipend; Dorian, a Lander who was once Koral’s friend (and romantic interest) due to their shared love of maristags, but who now competes against her in the races; and a host of other supporting figures, Renters and Landers alike. In many novels where the hero is caught between two worlds, the novel clues readers into the one group that’s better than the other. But Berwah never makes choosing sides easy.

The Renters and the rebel faction trying to overturn the Landes, Freedom’s Ark, might seem as plucky underdogs, seeking justice. From Koral’s perspective, however, Freedom’s Ark is just as villainous; they attack her family for reasons Koral doesn’t understand. Condescension from the Landers is something Koral can accept, though she views all of the Lander attitudes about Renters as unjust. Hatred and exclusion from the community of Renters feels so much worse to Koral.

While this novel is billed as a South Asian-inspired fantasy, there are strong science fiction elements here—advanced medicine, reserved only for Landers; the one-time spaceship that has now been turned into a museum; the sense that the people of Ophir once had access to much greater technology, but that knowledge has been lost. The South Asian elements are easier to identify: the novel’s commentary on the oppressiveness of the caste system is clearly deeply important to Berwah as a South Asian writer. That the novel leaves the issue unresolved (and with some very curious personal loose ends), will have readers hoping for a sequel.

Worldbuilding is clearly one of Berwah’s strengths as a writer, the story is bursting with glorious and treacherous scenery; legends specific to Ophir that are told differently by the castes; and songs that have different tunes, despite their similar words, depending on where they’re played. The richness of the setting and its creatures—giant capricorns, deadly raptors, enormous crabs, and the terrifyingly beautiful maristags themselves—makes it ripe for future stories.

Some of the choreography in the races and in the battle scenes is a little less tangible, which works well enough in the chaos of those moments, but feels less cinematic than readers might enjoy. Tenderhearted readers may shy away from the sheer amount of violence, both monstrous and human, in the narrative. But readers familiar with YA-dystopias will be at home here, among monsters who are creatures—and the human monsters who drive systems of inequality and oppression.

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.