Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Title: Voice of the Runes – When Souls Connect, But Vengeance Speaks
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2018.
Voice of the Runes begins with a vision and a death. The stage is set and readers plunge into the mystery even before they have seen Lund University, Sweden, the setting for Dr Manjiri Prabhu’s Nordic noir. The thriller brings back Re Parkar, the investigative journalist with the ability to sense things and chase visions. With him in this adventure is Magdalena Lindberg, Maddy, who assists him in tracing the messages the runes offer.
The story begins with Professor Heinz delivering his annual address to the university’s students a day before the university’s 350th year celebrations. He is a revered practitioner of runology – a controversial subject in an academic atmosphere that relies heavily on its scientific temperament; Maddy is his research assistant. As he delivers the lecture, he turns to a moment of drama, shuts his eyes and picks out a rune stone from his bag. The first kiss of stone and the professor collapses, suddenly, shockingly.
The stunned silence that follows will soon give way to chaos, suspicions, intrigue, arson, vandalism, treachery and deaths while Maddy interprets the clues in the runes for Re Parkar and they arrive closer and closer to the truth — a truth that will shock and unnerve the characters as well as the readers. Manjiri Prabhu delivers a masterstroke by bringing in this twist in the tale, firmly establishing the story’s emotional core.
At the heart of this fast-paced thriller is the presence of runes that tell their own stories steeped in an ancient history with contemporary implications. Dr Prabhu knows the landscape and the culture well enough to draw upon its myths and legends, its buildings and architectural history, upon the runes that drive the narrative along with the esotericism and mysticism of these ancient stones. The darkness of the mood and the beauty of the placid landscape provide safe cover for the dual emotion of love and hatred. Love is not always the panacea for all ills, and hatred, when unleashed, is the real Ragnarok.
Like most good thrillers, Voice of the Runes succeeds in using the setting to advantage and creates a sense of foreboding and gloom. Clear skies suddenly give way to a downpour; abandoned windmills provide refuge from killers; cathedrals and their dark interiors are the scenes of murderous attacks and legends waiting to be told; rune stones in Viking ship formation beckon the investigators with hidden stories and secrets that must be unravelled. And an old secret rears its head to claim victims. Or is it absolution?
The book provides a wealth of information about runes. While this draws in the reader into the setting and context, at times, it also slackens the narrative pace, interfering with its intensity. The writer’s familiarity with and love for the landscape is obvious but for some readers it might also introduce a discordant tone, as if the narrator provides the information to herself, imposing it upon the reader. With stronger editing, the book would have been able to maintain its pace and also used the two voices more effectively, without the jarring break.
With a simple plot and interesting sub plots, Voice of the Runes is an engrossing read from one of India’s most prolific mystery writers who dons various hats as writer, founder-director of the Pune International Literary Festival, animal welfare activist, and independent filmmaker.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is the author of Cast Out and Other Stories, published by Dhauli Books, 2018. She is an independent editor from Pune.
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