Skip to main content
PBS logo
Want fewer ads?

Book Review of Song of Kali

Song of Kali
Song of Kali
Author: Dan Simmons
Genres: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Horror
Book Type: Paperback
reviewed on + 3 more book reviews

The Song of Kali might be one of the most ghoulish novels I have read, yet to my own confusion, I found it intriguing, & despite the ending, I found the journey itself suspenseful and interesting.
The story is about a man named Bobby Luczack who travels to Calcutta with his wife and baby daughter in order to pursue a story on a manuscript of a poet that has supposedly been dead after his disappearance 8 years prior. From the moment he and his family step off the plane, Simmons immediately sets the atmosphere of Calcutta; the torturous humidity, the filth, the poverty, greed- it struck me as an abhorrent place that I would have no desire to visit. (THAT SAID- I should strongly point out this is no reflection on India or it's people, but rather the specific setting of this Novel. I took it as a work of fiction, though I can see how some might find it an offensive representation of Calcutta.) In any case, the descriptions by the author did an excellent job of creating and maintaining atmosphere throughout the book. As Bobby seeks out the manuscript of the mysterious M. Das, he quickly finds himself entangled with suspicious characters and gangster-cult members devoted to the goddess Kali: the Kapalikas. As the story progresses, the more harrowing and strange his experiences become.
The mystery surrounding the vanished poet was the most interesting part of the novel, however I found the so-called 'investigation' by the main character somewhat unsatisfactory. It sets up to be suspense-building, however he doesn't actually do any REAL investigating. I would have preferred the author do something similar to Tom Knox (another horror-suspense novelist) where the characters are actually engaged in trying to work out the puzzles. Bobby's interactions are somewhat limited to the dubious character Krishna, plus a contact with the writer's union who initiated the whole sequence of events. Added to this is the mythology of Kali; this would have been an excellent opportunity to explore the thuggee cult in greater detail, as well as Indian religious practices associated with the goddess, but no real effort is made to do this, which was rather disappointing.
The thing that bothers me the most was the kidnapping of their baby, Victoria. Notwithstanding my own personal abhorrence to the kidnapping of any children, much less a 9 month old baby, the whole situation makes no sense. No explanation is ever given as to who or why she was kidnapped, not to mention when she is finally found, the circumstances surrounding it are murky and don't connect with the main Kapalika/M. Das storyline AT ALL. Researching the thuggee cult I learned that babies were not generally the offerings to Kali; in fact, the thugs would target primarily men. So why bring the baby into this? Very Unsatisfactory conclusion.
One objective observation on my part: the biggest complaint I have noticed from other readers is the portrayal of Calcutta and it's Indian inhabitants in a borderline racist fashion. I have no idea what Simmons intentions were when writing, but I did note that this was written in the 70's and it may be a reflection of his own experiences during his trip there. Hygiene has historically been an ongoing problem in India, and it is vividly reflected in the book. However, Simmons does attempt to have balance by having the protagonist's wife be an Indian woman (and a very beautiful one), but she is notably 'civilized' from living in Britain. The author does seem to address this directly on one particular scene when Bobby is sitting down with the writer's union representative. They are discussing Calcutta & Bobby asks if there is a streak of insanity in the city. The other man hands him editorials from the US showing numerous incidents of crime. He says:

It was as if only a thin wall of electric lighting protected the great cities of the world from total barbarism.
... 'It's a hell of a thing Mr. Chatterjee. Your point is well made. I certainly don't want to sound self righteous about Calcutta's problems.'
..He nodded slightly. 'As long as you understand that it is an urban problem, Mr. Luczack...'

Overall, I would say to those readers curious about the book, if you have a taste for horror/suspense, by all means indulge yourself in reading make up your own mind; though for those who prefer to avoid the macabre, you should probably steer clear.

Want fewer ads?