Saturday, June 01, 2024

Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Ever since her father was mysteriously killed, Marjan has been trying to keep the family's veterinary clinic going.  The staff do the actual animal care.  She simply tries to sort out the bills and hold things together.  But quickly Marjan becomes aware that her father had a secret sideline when a stranger arrives and demands that Marjan fly to England to care for a mysterious patient.  For reasons she cannot explain, she feels compelled to go and discovers the truly unusual nature of the charge:  her patient is a dying gryphon.

When Marjan was little, her farther delighted in telling her old Persian fairy tales.  Each one beginning with "once was, once wasn't," they told stories about magical creatures (faeries, manticores, djinns, dragons, unicorns, and even gryphons) and mankind's fateful dealings with them.  Now, Marjan is coming to understand that the stories contained elements of truth and that her father (and in fact the entire family line) has a special calling to care for these magical creatures.

Care is desperately needed.  Secret forces are at work to wrest control over the magical realm and the conflict threatens all of humankind.  But at the same time, the conflict is also personal.  Somehow, her father's death is tied in to all of this and Marjan needs to figure out how.  With time running out and desperately searching for answers, Marjan must bravely face any number of fearful situations, all the time dealing with nagging doubts about herself and her family's role in all of this.

A beautifully-written fantasy with a byzantine power struggle, interspersed by stunning retellings of Persian folk tales.  I especially liked the tale of the manticore, a morality tale about the cost of vengeance, but each of the stories within the story carry the dual purpose of furthering the story while being sold self-standing tales within the novel.  While this could have easily become a cutesy fantasy about a girl getting to take care of cuddly animals (and there is no denying that the story will appeal to young readrs who like animal books), Monsef has higher ambitions: calling into question human intervention in the animal world and the ethics thereof.  

The overall story has some rough patches, but the final fifty pages deliver one of the best bittersweet endings of recent memory and tie up all of the loose ends in a beautifully messy fashion.  An instant best seller that deserves all of its acclaim.

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