The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera fantasy book reviewsThe Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera 

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera fantasy book reviewsThe Saint of Bright Doors, a debut novel by Vajra Chandrasekera, opens with an absolutely killer beginning (literally, as the very young main character is being trained as an assassin) that had me sure I was going to love this novel. But while I did love parts of it, and was in the end happy I’d read it, I can’t say it lived up fully to the promise of that beginning.

But oh, that opening:

The moment Fetter is born, Mother of Glory pins his shadow to the earth with a large brass nail and tears it from him. This is his first memory … It is raining. His shadow is cast upon reddish soil thick with clay that clings to Getter as he rolls in it … Mother of Glory dips her hands in that mud to gather up the ropy shadow of his umbilical cord and throttles his severed shadow with a quick loop, pulled tight … If shadows can cry out, that sound is lost in the rain.

See what I mean? The whole first section is fantastic. As Fetter ages, he discovers he has certain unique abilities (whether these are tied to his lack of a shadow is unclear at this point): he can float, and he is able to see and hear the strange and often horrifying creatures that seem to share his plane of existence but that nobody else can see, though they are aware of them and have certain rites and rituals surrounding them (his mother calls them “the invisible laws and powers” while the other seemingly less knowledgeable people call them “devils.” Also as he ages, his mother trains him to kill, with certain specific goals in mind, including both patricide and matricide (“After that, you have me around to hold your hand”). At thirteen, he “goes out into the world, armed and dangerous”, and then after a single-paragraph chapter covering his teen years, we next see him in his twenties and living in the city of Luriat, having severed ties with his family and given up his killing ways.

Luriat is famed for its titular “bright doors”, mysterious doors scattered throughout the city that cannot be opened and only have one side. Also, any regular door left closed long enough will turn into a bright door, will “vanish from one side and become openable from the other.” Fetter becomes involved with investigating the bright doors, as well as entangled in a host of other issues: he becomes enmeshed in the political struggles in the city and also its religious issues, as his father is the head of a major religion/cult and is coming to the city for a big gathering. Fetter has nothing to do with his father or his religion, and in fact in Luriat goes to a support group for the “almost chosen” — those in close proximity to prophets, sect leaders, etc. but who were not selected or walked away from their roles.

I’ve already noted that great opening section. Another highlight are those doors, which are utterly fascinating in the tiny details that accrete about them—the way they are painted so colorfully and maintained, the way the can “bloom” from a regular door, the way opacity seems to be a factor so very few regular doors in Luriat are fully opaque (some places have a waiver for frosted glass but only to a certain extent), and more. I love the doors of Luriat. Loved them. Well, for the most part. Like some other parts they kind of waned a bit toward the end.

Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera

The numerous sects/religions/cults are another highlight, as are the members of Fetter’s support group of not-quite-the chosen-ones. And the gradual, piece-by-piece revelations of the darkness at the core of Luriat is also quite well done. A darkness that includes but is not limited to xenophobia, racial classifications, propaganda, mob violence, fascism, illegal detainment, and that is sadly all too topical in our own place and time. I also liked the idea of the premise at the core here, even if I thought the execution had issues, though I won’t say more about it to avoid spoilers. Finally, The Saint of Bright Doors is an admirably ambitious debut, covering a lot of heavy topics — heavy in depth of thought, in topicality, in importance.

As for the issues that didn’t outweigh but did detract from the above positives. One was pacing, which was up and down; there were more than a few places where it felt the book bogged down, and I’d say it was also overlong. Somewhat connected, it can also be a “talky” book, in that a number of character talk at or tell Fetter things over an extended number of pages. This isn’t inherently a writing problem, but the execution here contributed to that bogging down sense. Fetter himself is a pretty passive agent, and while that’s partly the point – his growth into agency is one of the subjects of the book — it goes on so long, and he is so passive, that it was hard for me to fully engage with him. Stylistically, there were a number of times where modern language/coinage popped up — phrases like “landline”, “social media” “broke up their band”, etc. — that at first distracted then became honestly a bit grating. While the novel has that great opening, it felt like it sort of meandered or somewhat listlessly wandered toward its ending. And finally, while I as noted above thoroughly liked a lot of what Chandrasekera offers up, perhaps not surprisingly for a debut novel, those ideas/plot points that were introduced with such originality and verve kind of petered out a bit by the end thanks to execution or pacing issues or not being fully thought out (or at least conveyed as such).

In the end, I’d still recommend The Saint of Bright Doors since as I stated above, the positives do outweigh the negatives and also because the good parts are so good. And it being a first novel also leaves me excited to see what Chandrasekera shows up with in their sophomore effort having gone through this experience.

Publication date: July 11, 2023. The Saint of Bright Doors sets the high drama of divine revolutionaries and transcendent cults against the mundane struggles of modern life, resulting in a novel that is revelatory and resonantFetter was raised to kill, honed as a knife to cut down his sainted father. This gave him plenty to talk about in therapy. He walked among invisible powers: devils and anti-gods that mock the mortal form. He learned a lethal catechism, lost his shadow, and gained a habit for secrecy. After a blood-soaked childhood, Fetter escaped his rural hometown for the big city, and fell into a broader world where divine destinies are a dime a dozen. Everything in Luriat is more than it seems. Group therapy is recruitment for a revolutionary cadre. Junk email hints at the arrival of a god. Every door is laden with potential, and once closed may never open again. The city is scattered with Bright Doors, looming portals through which a cold wind blows. In this unknowable metropolis, Fetter will discover what kind of man he is, and his discovery will rewrite the world.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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