Book: The Saint of Bright Doors
Author: Bajra Chandrasekera
Publisher: Tor Dot Com
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Fetter was raised to kill, honed as a knife to cut down his sainted father. This gave him plenty to talk about in therapy. He walked among invisible powers: devils and antigods that mock the shape of man. He learned a lethal catechism, lost his shadow, and gained a habit for secrecy. After a blood-soaked childhood, Fetter escaped his rural hometown for the big city and fell into a broader world where divine destinies are a dime a dozen.”
Review: Before I sat down to write this review, I made the mistake of reading some of the GoodReads reviews on The Saint of Bright Doors. The average review was 3.5 stars and they were littered with “did not finish” (DNF) reviews from people calling this book pretentious and confusing. Before I had even finished Saint, I vehemently told my partner this book needs to be a summer reading book for AP English students. NEEDS TO BE. I have to assume that those who were DNFing this book have never read Catch-22 or One Hundred Years of Solitude (and if they have, I would hate to see their impending reviews about how terrible they are), but I think that’s probably a rant for another time.
It has taken me several days since finishing Saint to finally get the nerve to sit down and write this. Chandrasekera has written an absolute masterpiece; it’s hard to know where to begin. The Saint of Bright Doors weaves a web of myth and legend, beginning with our protagonist, Fetter, losing his shadow as a newborn. His mother, Mother-of-Glory, in an attempt to make Fetter her perfect killing machine, rips his shadow from his body with a nail. This loss finds Fetter no longer tied to the laws of gravity, able to simply float upward at the slightest unclenching of a muscle in his abdomen. Mother-of-Glory spends the first twelve years of Fetter’s life preparing him to kill his estranged father, The Perfect and Kind, a mystical holy-person and the leader of a cult-like religion called The Path Above (not to be confused with The Path Behind or any of the other offshoots of The Path Above, each as convoluted as the next, professing completely opposing beliefs, assured they are each the correct way forward).
When Fetter is twelve, Mother-of-Glory throws him out of the house, assuming the world would make him hard, perfecting the process she has already begun. Fetter, however, finds his way to an island called Luriat, rejects the killing lifestyle, and attempts to live his life in a new way. We spend the remainder of the book in Luriat, for the most part, and watch as Fetter grows to love this strange and mixed up island. The political and religious system of the world Chandrasekera has created are confusing and complicated, often convoluted, and always at odds with whatever political or religious system has recently been overthrown, often seeing buildings and streets renamed for the new political or religious system in place, thus leaving spaces to be named and renamed and renamed over again, sometimes bouncing back and forth between names when one system overthrows another and is then overthrown by the previous system. It’s complex, I understand why some people found this difficult to process, but it only serves to show how strange the world Fetter lives in is.
We spend most of the book assuming that Fetter’s parents are otherworldly in some way because they’re both, seemingly, hundreds or thousands of years old. What we come to learn, though, is that, around the time of Fetter’s birth, The Perfect and Kind simply reshapes the world and in doing so creates thousands of years of political and religious systems in the memories of those alive, throwing Mother-of-Glory into a space where, though only 15-20 years old, she remembers her original homeland but also remembers all that has come to pass since then – false memories that were created with the reshaping of the world. In this reshaping, the island of Luriat comes into existence for the first time. I find this reshaping to be a fascinating part of this tale and I’ll tell you why! As I read through Saint, I kept thinking “this is an epic”, though it’s not necessarily an epic in the traditional sense. It covers a span of time, it’s a decently long book, but realistically we’re only spending about 30 years with Fetter from the start of the book, at his birth, to the end of the book. It doesn’t quite make it an epic, and yet…it’s an epic. Chandrasekera has created an epic in the same way that The Perfect and Kind has recreated the world, building history into something that is thousands of years younger than it seems. It’s nothing short of masterful.
The Saint of Bright Doors is a book about choosing our own destinies despite the destinies we may often find thrust upon us. It’s about autonomy in the face of somewhat mystical forces. Fetter joins a group of people in Luriat, a self help group if you will, called the Unchosen. People who come from all kinds of different mystical and mythical backgrounds, those with equally magical and powerful families and family members, people who came close to being the chosen ones, but just didn’t quite make it. Each person in the group has their own story and their own magical abilities, and they each set out to become something else. I suspect that at least one person in the group actually is a chosen one, but the story of their legacy is so muddled by the time it makes its way to them, that they are unable to fulfill their particular destiny. Fetter, similarly, has a legacy he is unable to fulfill at the time he finds the group because he’s never been introduced to his father and is unable to A) become the heir to The Perfect and Kind or B) kill is father as Mother-of-Glory has raised him to do.
Fetter spends much of the book wondering who he is, exactly. He slips into different personas in order to fit into the caste system of Luriat and do the work he wants to do, which is studying the bright doors around the city – doors which, if closed for too long and put under the right amount of pressure, will turn into something magical. No one knows or understands what the doors do, but Fetter can see that they are actually open doorways to other worlds and realities, through which devils can cross and enter the world Luriat exists in.
Fetter, appropriately named for one who is tied down, spends his life in this book attempting to escape the destinies that his parents see for him, to escape the destinies that are thrust upon him by institutions, political and religious systems, or even by those he considers his friends. He wonders who he is in relation to the secrets and lies he’s constructed in order to fit in, and I can’t think it’s a coincidence that he finds himself most at home on an island that shouldn’t even exist – an island that has simply chosen it’s own destiny. Fetter finds himself drawn to bright doors, turning into magical portals when given the time or attention to become what they want to be, again spending his time with creations that have chosen their own destinies. In the end, Fetter leaves us with this :
“‘Every lost past is a world,’ Fetter says. ‘I learned that from my…from the Perfect and Kind himself. I think it might be the only thing I learned from him that matters. Behind every bright door is a world full of lost hearts. It matters.’ […] “‘I need you to understand me, here. I know this isn’t your politics, and I swear to every devil I know I’m not turning my back on that, because I’m fucking here, aren’t I? I’m here, this time But I need you to understand what I mean when I say I am the world.’ Koel laughs, shortly. ‘And you’ve changed it?’ ‘And I’ve changed it,’ Fetter says.”
Advice: If you read One Hundred Years of Solitude and found it easy to keep track of the timeline, you will have absolutely no trouble keeping track of the intricacies of The Saint of Bright Doors. If you read Catch-22 and found the politics laughable and relatable, you will have absolutely no trouble seeing the politics in The Saint of Bright Doors for what they are. If you enjoy an epic, world building, myths, and strangeness, this is the book for you. If you can read critically and analyze what you’re consuming, dive the heck in! You don’t want to miss this one.