1 Mar 2024

Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays: ISLAND WITCH by Amanda Jayatissa (Review + Excerpt)


Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays introduces readers who are unfamiliar with the Adult SF/F genre to books, authors, and discussions all about the vast expanse of the world of Adult SF/F!

NIGHT FOR DAY

Author: Amanda Jayatissa
Series: N/A
Source: eARC via publisher
Publisher: Ace
Publication Date: February 20, 2024
Representation: Sri Lankan main character

Summary:
Set in 19th century Sri Lanka and inspired by local folklore, the daughter of a traditional demon-priest—relentlessly bullied by peers and accused of witchcraft herself—tries to solve the mysterious attacks that have been terrorizing her coastal village.

Being the daughter of the village Capuwa, or demon-priest, Amara is used to keeping mostly to herself. Influenced by the new religious practices brought in by the British Colonizers, the villagers who once respected her father’s craft have turned on the family. Yet, they all still seem to call on him whenever supernatural disturbances arise.

Now someone—or something—is viciously seizing upon men in the jungle. But instead of enlisting Amara’s father’s help, the villages have accused him of carrying out the attacks himself.

As she tries to clear her father’s name, Amara finds herself haunted by dreams that eerily predict the dark forces on her island. And she can’t shake the feeling that it’s all connected to the night she was recovering from a strange illness, and woke up, scared and confused, to hear her mother’s frantic cries: No one can find out what happened. 

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The demon-drums started and the little girl's face contorted like a blood-soaked rag being twisted dry. Her tongue hung out, purple and almost to her chest, a dribble of spit leaving a dark, wet mark on the loose nightdress she wore. The thick smoke from the perfumed incense made everything look like it was enveloped inside a dark cloud. I craned my neck out further from behind the curtain that separated the main room from the rest of the house, where I was hiding, hoping that no one would notice me.

My father sat in front of the girl. I knew she was ten years old, but she looked much younger as she thrashed around on the mat that had been laid on the floor. Almost like an animal about to be taken to the slaughter. I noticed that her white cotton nightdress was embroidered with little yellow ducks. I'd had a similar nightgown when I was that age.

The light of the small clay lamp that my father held in his palms cast strange shadows on his face as he chanted pirith. He was blessing her, and most importantly, blessing what was about to happen next. They had passed around pirith nool to everyone who was in attendance a while back-the protective thread that was meant to be tied around our wrists-so that meant things were about to begin.

May the blessings of the triple gem be with you, I silently mouthed, my own prayer for my father. Words I had uttered countless times, but still, today, they wilted on my tongue like sleeping grass when you touched it. Exorcisms were never cheerful events, but there was a certain hardness clinging to the air this evening, leaving everyone clenching their fists and shortening their breath, rigid and strained.

Three young men lined up, waiting for my father to say the word. They had on colourfully painted wooden devil masks. The same kind that hung in our hut-bad spirits to scare away worse spirits. I was thankful that these men hadn't abandoned him. Most people in the village had, though my father, Thaththa to me, would never blame them.

"People have a right to believe in what they choose to," he'd said, the finality in his voice conjuring rocks in my chest. There was a time we'd talk about anything and everything, but not anymore.

A tiny voice cut through my thoughts. "Aren't you scared, Amara Akki?" Siyath Malli asked me. Our parents were friends, and I'd been there the day Siyath was born. That was six years ago, and I was eighteen now. His eyes were wider than the possessed girl's and his lips quivered. Even though he threatened my hiding spot, I couldn't help but laugh at his expression. I put a finger to my mouth and ushered him to join me behind the curtain.

"Why?" I whispered. "Are you afraid of men in masks?"

We had a funny relationship with spirits on this island. We respected them, but we didn't fear them in the same way the British did, or the Dutch before them, or the nuns who taught me back when I used to attend school. We used them to help us, often against other spirits. I suppose you could say it was fighting fire with fire-although the only real fire here was from the torches my father had ordered lit around the property.

"No matter what, don't ever let the torches die out," he had said to his assistants. The same men who wore the wooden devil masks and had tied gejji-bells-around their ankles, waiting to dance a tovil on my father's orders. The devil dance was meant to draw out the evil spirit that had wedged itself inside the poor girl.

The De Silva family had come to see my father five days before. Clifford De Silva had brought home some beef, freshly slaughtered at the market, but when his wife had opened the parcel to make a curry for dinner, the meat had been rotten. Crawling with maggots, he'd said, and the stench had caused his daughter to vomit. It was definitely a hooniyama, Clifford had cried, a curse, cast by his neighbours, who had recently argued with him about a fence put up at the edge of his property. The neighbours claimed it was on five yards of their own land, but Clifford said they'd have to take it up with the British, who had gifted the property to his family for their support.

My father had narrowed his eyes at that, but had not said anything. Support for the British meant that the De Silva family would have joined the Christian church. Or perhaps they had already converted many years ago-their new name certainly suggested so, as did eating beef, which Buddhists never did. And my father made it very clear to me and my mother how he felt about that.

But most importantly, my father didn't like to deal with demons-yakku, as we called them here. My father was a Capuwa, he liked to clarify, and this profession required him to appeal to deviyo-the gods. He was mostly called upon to bless houses, cut limes to ward off the evil eye, administer tonics. Not to be confused with a Cattadiya, who used the dark powers of yakku.

He had given Clifford De Silva some blessed talismans-prayers inscribed and rolled into small clay pots-to hang in the four corners of his house for protection, and suggested he speak to the priest at the Christian church if his troubles continued.

But he didn't have the heart to refuse Clifford when he visited our home for the second time two days later, at the very crack of dawn, hair dishevelled and eyes bloodshot, trembling like a leaf. His daughter, Lalitha, had started speaking in a different tongue, he sobbed. What little they could understand was all profanity. Curse words that the girl had never once uttered in her life-words that she had not even heard before, he claimed. She would lie on her mat, her body bending and contorting while she hissed and spit and snarled. She had tried to bite the Christian priest who came to bless her. She'd been possessed by a yaka, Clifford cried.

His face grim, my father simply nodded and started to make preparations. This was no job for a foreign god. We had to deal with our demons the traditional way.

"It's not the masks I'm afraid of," Siyath Malli said, curling his small body into mine. "It's the yaka."

My father preferred not to deal with yakku, but I had grown up watching him perform these rituals when it was absolutely necessary. I'd usually help him-gathering the objects he needed, making sure everything was ready, though he never let me participate in the exorcism itself. I was still too young, he said, until a few weeks ago when he appeared to have changed his mind completely and declared I wasn't allowed to be involved at all.

I'll claw out your tongue if you tell. No one can find out what happened.

A chill ran through me, but not because of the scene in front of us. Since the last full moon, I'd been having dreams. They started in the same place every time. In a small hut, at the very edge of the world. It was made of mud, like most huts, but it had no sleeping mat, no shelves or baskets to store things in. All it had were old, tattered curtains in a surprising, startling red.

And every time I stepped out of the hut, my surroundings would be different. Sometimes I would be deep in the heart of the jungle. Sometimes on the ocean shore. But each time, without fail, one thing was constant.

Her.

I didn't know her name. I didn't know what she wanted. She was a monster. Demoness. A yakshaniya. Every time I dreamt of her, her image would get clearer in my mind.

Excerpted from Island Witch by Amanda Jayatissa Copyright © 2024 by Amanda Jayatissa. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer : I received a free copy of this book and chose to review it. This in no way impacts my opinion.

Content Warning: death, grief, nosebleeds, blood, discussions of war

I really liked this one but felt like there were some key missing pieces to make it a perfect read. I thought the premise was interesting with good execution but some of it ended up falling flat and feeling repetitive as time went on. I wanted to know more about the war, what the factions wanted, and the roles that everyone played in it rather than focusing so heavily on Ward and Camille.

I think it also would have been interesting to give us more time in the world rather than cramming it all into a couple weeks. We weren’t given enough time to explore, learn about the consequences, or to understand what has been happening. Because of that, the story felt really rushed. I thought there would be more of an emphasis on not caring how much time was spent during this because of the immortal aspects, which when juxtaposed with the mortal side just didn’t quite hit for me.

But I did really like Camille and Ward’s relationship. The coming together and realizing what it meant to trust and love one another was the best part of this novel. I liked the way their relationship was described and learning about their past as they moved forward into the future. I liked their complimentary aspects and how they learned to work together to overcome their differences.

This is different than Roselle Lim’s typical novels, but it was a good departure! I’d be so interested in reading more of this style of work in the future.

Have you read this book? What was your favourite part?

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