Tiger Moon, by Antonia Michaelis (2008 in US edition, translated from the German, Amulet Books, YA, 448 pp)
In India, more than 100 years ago, when it was still part of the British Empire, a beautiful young woman was taken from her desert home to be the newest bride of a rich, but cruel, husband. Safia waits for the night to come when he takes her to her bed for the first time, and discovers that she is not the virgin he had bargained for...and kills her. To keep fear at bay, she begins to tell a story to her husband's serving boy.
It is a story of an unlikely hero, a young thief named Farhad who grew up unloved and unwanted, scrounging a living as best he could. Then one day he finds a silver amulet that holds the picture of a beautiful girl. She is the daughter of the god Krishna, and she has been seized by a demon king. Farhad, unlikely though it seems, is the hero Krishna has chosen to save her. To do so, he must find the cursed bloodstone with which he can bribe the demon's guard. And to find the bloodstone, and take it to the desert city in time to save the princess' life, he must ride a magical white tiger the length and breadth of India, on a quest that will test both boy and tiger to their limits, and stretch the boy's heart to that of a true hero.
All the while, as boy and tiger journey on, Safia fills the night with the words of their story. Until the night the two stories meet...By which point the words were flying off the pages into my eyes (despite the fact that I was starting to weep). And I closed the book with that oh so satisfying of having read something whose pictures and people will stick in my mind for ages.
Farhad is a thief worthy to stand with the other great young thieves of modern fantasy. Safia is no passive victim, but a smart strong young woman pushing as hard as she can against fate. And the white tiger provides lighter moments comic relief, without losing his dignity. I enjoyed their stories lots.
Yet as I was reading, Rudyard Kipling's Kim kept coming into my head. I read Kim, the story of a tricksy British boy living on his wits in colonial India, back when I was young, and I loved it. I accepted uncritically the "India" that Kipling gave me, and simply enjoyed the story. I can't do that now, as an adult. So although I loved the story, and even loved the story-telling, of Tiger Moon, I have reservations about Michaelis' India--it seems to me a 19th-century European fantasy of India, rather than an India (if there can ever be "an India") that ever existed. And then, poking around for other blog reviews, I found my vague doubt given more explicit and knowledgeable voice at Writing With a Broken Tusk, and I'm left sighing...
Because I did loose myself utterly in Tiger Moon...but then again, I still re-read Kim.