Imagine a marketplace in Kolkata. Can you see the vendors selling stalls full of colourful fruit? Smell the heady scent of spices lacing the hazy air? Hear the buzz and the bustle of customers bargaining and bartering? Good.
Now picture the marketplace populous with as many monkeys as men and women.
Were they peaceful creatures—the monkeys, I mean—it’d be a magnificent thing; a memory to truly treasure. But they aren’t, and it isn’t. These monkeys have no money, no manners, no morals. They take what they want, when they want it, and if someone comes between them and their ends… well. People have been hurt. But because “devout Hindus believe that all monkeys are manifestations of the monkey god, Hanuman,” authorities are unable to take action against said simians.
A true story, I’m told, though the tale screenwriter Richard Kurti spins out of it—an all-ages allegory of the rise of the Nazis arranged around a tragic romance right out of Romeo and Juliet—is as much fiction as fact.
Our main monkey, Mico, is a clever little langur whose family has followed Lord Gospodar’s lead into a lately-vacated graveyard:
For Mico it was like entering paradise—one moment he was clinging to his mother, surrounded by all the frantic noise of the city, the next he was in the cool, green tranquility of the cemetery. Whatever the humans had meant this strange place to be, for monkeys it was perfect. High walls kept out the chaos of the city, there were row upon row of small stone buildings to scramble over, and a thick canopy of banyan trees was just begging to be explored.
More’s the pity, as Mico hardly has time to enjoy his new home before a bloody handprint catches his eye. Later that day he sees several langur elites disposing of a rhesus’ beaten body, and suddenly uncertainty sets in, so “while all the other monkeys laughed and chatted and stuffed themselves, Mico sat quietly, his mind bombarded with doubts.”
A few days later, he sees another rhesus… but this one is as alive as you like, and sneaking around the cemetery with a surety that betrays her status as a stranger. Mico confronts her, of course, but rather than reporting Papina, he asks her what she’s doing, and why. She explains that the graveyard was her home until the langur invaded, slaughtering all who dared defend the territory—including her father.
Papina’s sorrowful story goes against everything he knows. That said, it supports the strange things he’s seen recently, and moreover, Mico is sure she’s telling the truth—the truth as she sees it, at least:
And so began a secret friendship.
Mico and Papina started to meet every night, and she told him all about how life used to be when the cemetery had been home to the rhesus. As they stole around the dark paths she showed him the tomb where she had grown up, and the trees where her father had taught her how to climb; she recounted how the Great Vault used to be a huge adventure playground, and she smiled wistfully as she remembered the long afternoons spent playing there, chasing shadows and digging up ants just for fun.
This age of innocence is not long lived, alas, as before long, Lord Gospodar dies, and one of his deputies takes his place at the top of the troop. Mico hopes that this new leader will signal a change for the better, but Tyrell is a tyrant, in truth, bent on wiping out all the monkeys of Kolkata—excepting the brutal Barbary apes, whom he hires to police the peace.
Till now, Mico and Papina have tried to “straddle two worlds, be all things to all monkeys,” but the arrival of ‘The Wild Ones’ changes the game. Now our star-cross’d simians must take down Tyrell before it’s too late, and damn the danger:
No matter how dangerous it became, though, Mico wasn’t going to give up. Beyond the rhesus lives that he was saving was a more powerful reason: every time he delivered secret information, he got to see Papina.
Monkey Wars has a whole lot going for it. A fresh and immersive setting which rings true from word one until the deed is done; a well-paced plot; some striking set pieces; and a goodly number of great ideas, such as the corruption of a simple symbol—the so-called “Twopoint” Tyrell takes a shine to—in much the same way the Nazis bastardised the swastika.
The most impressive of all the text’s successes, however, must be the balance struck between the terrible human truths Kurti’s tale takes in and the more wholesome moments focused on family and romance. I’ll allow that there’s a little levity, but Monkey Wars is far from farce. Likewise, the violence inherent in its premise is neither gratuitous nor summarily brushed under the living room rug. Kurti, to his credit, stops short of either shying away from the horrors of war or rendering said events so bloodlessly as to rob them of real meaning.
Monkey Wars has a huge hole in its heart, however: the central characters are, to a one, underdone. Mico turns on a dime all the time, such that we never know where we are with him, and though the first few chapters paint Papina as our would-be hero’s equal, her struggle to survive is, in practice, peripheral; she’s little more than a maiden in need of saving.
Tyrell, too, is frustratingly transparent. He’s so supremely evil that there’s no doubt he is the Hitler of this fiction, nor is there any question that he’ll ultimately be undone, again in the fashion of the Führer, which makes large parts of Monkey Wars’ plot predictable, and Mico all the more maddening a protagonist for falling under Tyrell’s spell.
Watership Down this is not, then, but if you can handle its heavy-handedness, Monkey Wars, like Lupus Rex before it, is a perfectly diverting allegory about animals behaving badly.
Monkey Wars is available now from Random House.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.