Exiled. Powerless. The world he grew up in is changing—he feels it, feels the devastation being wrought. But what can he do so far away from home?
Lost. Afraid. She’s being enlisted to help save Alam Dongeng—a magical world she knows little about. How can she tell stories she doesn’t even know?
Worried. Confused. He’s long forgotten his grandfather’s stories—it’s familiar, but he’s never really believed in them. Why should he start now?
Dongeng tells the story of Sara and Helmi’s awakening to magic in their own country. There’s a war to protect Alam Dongeng, helmed by the Orang Bunian and Garuda. But are the ranks of Hantu really their enemies? They may very well be fighting the wrong battle.
A sequel to Coexist, Dongeng draws you into a whole new realm of fairy tales.
Anna Tan grew up in Malaysia, the country that is not Singapore. She writes fantastical stories and fairy tales, and has short stories included in various anthologies. She helps people publish books at Teaspoon Publishing, which includes yelling at HTML for epub reasons. She is also the editor of NutMag, an annual zine published for and by MYWriters Penang.
Anna has an MA in Creative Writing: The Novel under a Chevening scholarship and is the current President of the Malaysian Writers Society. She is interested in Malay/Nusantara and Chinese legends and folklore in exploring the intersection of language, culture, and faith. She can be found tweeting as @natzers and forgetting to update annatsp.com.
The prelude to Dongeng by Anna Tan sets the scene and fulfils the promise of the book’s title: This is a story set in the world of fairytales. Sang Kancil makes a brief appearance, confirming that, as the title suggests, the fairytales will be those of the Malay world.
The title also seems to remind us that the world we are about to enter, via the story, is an imaginary one. While we may be expected to suspend our disbelief as we immerse ourselves in Tan’s words, the title stresses that this is a fairy story. Or is it? Certainly, as I read more, I began to see that the book’s title might allude to the doubt and skepticism felt by the novel’s protagonist about what she encounters. Indeed, the title seems also to cheekily reference the reader’s own assumptions that the story being told is pure fantasy.
‘Chapter One’ plunges us into the thick of things: Sara, the protagonist, finds herself in the middle of a forest, on a moss-covered dais no less. A city girl, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, she is immediately aware that something really odd is afoot, and so, one of her first observations is that her handbag has travelled to the forest with her and that nothing in it has gone missing — as it would be inconvenient to have to apply for a new identity card and cancel her credit card. This response is rather incongruous, but not entirely implausible, I suppose, considering how traumatised Sara must be to find herself whisked away to another world. For those of us interested in Malay folklore and mythology, it’s obvious that Sara has been kidnapped by Orang Bunian. However, this chapter establishes a few things about the character, including that, for a Malaysian, her ability to speak Malay is shockingly poor (she struggles with ‘terima kasih’, a phrase that trip off even the most redneck American tourists’ tongues with ease. However, she inconsistently offers to play Malay-to-English translator later on), and the fact that her knowledge of myths is Eurocentric.
In fact, Sara’s responses to her kidnappers shows just how colonised her mind is. She thinks that the forest folk are ‘beautiful’, and this translates to describing them as Pan-Asian, which, although it suggests an appearance that incorporates various types of Asian features, has come to be associated with the half-white models favoured by the casting directors at Asian television and print ad agencies. Furthermore, Sara later tells her friend that the Bunian are ‘almost Malay. But very good-looking’ as if the two things are mutually exclusive.
So, what do the Bunian want with Sara? They explain that they have been forgotten by the people of Malaysia, so much so that they have ‘faded’, practically out of existence. Thus, the Bunian need Sara to revive their stories — tell them into being again.
Sara’s response is hasty and abrupt. She flat-out refuses to entertain their requests, declaring that she must be dreaming. The King and Queen of the Bunian are disgusted by the young woman’s disbelief and dismissal and promptly disappear. Frankly, I can relate to their annoyance even if I feel they should have tried harder, told her more, and not have expected immediate understanding and agreement. However, Sara must seem like an irritating child to these ancient beings. They call her a Penglipur Lara, but for a storyteller, she seems strangely apathetic about this adventure she’s in.
And here’s the thing, although Sara’s status as a storyteller keeps being mentioned, the reader is not told why she is seen as one. She doesn’t seem to be a writer by profession (apparently she’s a clerk who ‘file[s] papers) and we don’t see her writing on the side, as a hobby, or aspiring to be published. At one point, she says that storytelling has got her in trouble in the past and her love interest, Helmi, responds by declaring that Sara has a way with words. Neither statement is expanded on though, and it’s never made clear (to me), why Sara, of all people, is the ideal candidate for the job the Bunian have in mind.
I feel that one of Dongeng’s biggest flaws is that Sara is not a fully-fleshed out character. We never learn much about her apart from the fact that she loves European fairytales (even then, her knowledge of them seems patchy). The chief problem is that her character is never fully fleshed out and developed.
Personally, I prefer character-driven stories and for some reason I thought this book would be a coming-of-age tale incorporating and examining attitudes towards local myths and how they are less celebrated than European ones; the search for identity; and the conflict between various worlds: the Malay and European; the supernatural beliefs and beings of the West and the East; the old ways and the new; Sara’s and Helmi’s different ethnicities and upbringing.
I think these themes could have been explored through Sara’s own struggle to learn about the Malay supernatural world and reconcile her ignorance of a culture physically close to her, while identifying and sympathising with one that is foreign.
Interestingly, when she eventually agrees to help the Bunian, her chief worry is that, in telling Malay folktales and myths, she will be appropriating a culture and stories that are not her’s.
‘We are not Americans to be worried about such things,’ replies Garuda, the first time Sara raises the issue, and I thought this was an excellent way to begin an exploration of cultural appropriation, and why most Malaysians either don’t see it as a problem, or don’t understand what it means in the first place.
Unfortunately, although some excellent points about privilege, ally-ship and advocacy are raised in the exchanges that are a result of Sara voicing her concerns, the discussions are too superficial and brief to offer any satisfactory answers. They do, however, present some food for thought: Can non-Malay Malaysians claim ownership of stories set in these lands? Why do we feel more affinity to European myths than Malayan ones? Is it purely a case of familiarity, and is greater exposure the solution?
Apart from these very relevant questions, there are also those that Dongeng’s overall premise provoked me to ponder: questions about identity, otherness and belonging, and even colonialism and racism. But, once again, the story provides no meat to chew on, just a whiff of a rich gumbo of ideas and issues, stirred, but, frustratingly, not dished up.
For example, I feel that Sara’s race is significant, as is Helmi’s. She mentions not being wanted, being excluded and being a stranger in her ‘own’ land. So, claiming ownership is not actually what this Chinese girl is worried about. Sara knows where she belongs. The real difficulty, the frustration, is getting others to acknowledge it too. And then there is the fear, the vulnerability, the desire to be accepted. When Helmi declares his feelings for her, it’s like affirmation. If only he spoke for the country too.
So, although Sara’s quest and what stands in the way of her completing it is quite clear; and although I can imagine a rich rendering of Sara’s personal journey and how her attitude, expectations, decisions and actions might shape events and, in turn, be shaped by them, what we get instead is something frustratingly vague, hurried and unconsidered.
On the whole, Dongeng seems rushed and even unplanned. Scenes and plot points are undeveloped, left hanging, or are alluded to but not explained. For instance, there’s the idea that Sara, just by being present in the alam dongeng, causes it to attach itself to the European ‘fairy kingdom’? The concept of different mythological universes annexing themselves to the European one is interesting, but there’s no convincing explanation as to why this happens. Personally, I think it’s just a convenient device to introduce Western mythological beings into the story, and I bristle at the idea of alam dongeng being seen as secondary to the European mythological world. Also, why are Inuit myths not considered worthy of a universe of their own? And why should centaurs lord it over at a trial held at the Bunian court? Sang Kancil speaks of the European mythological world as ‘old and well-established’, ‘strong and powerful’, but is it necessarily older, stronger or more established than other mythological worlds based in the Asian, African and American continents?
Sara is, ostensibly, the hero of Dongeng, but turns out to be a red herring. For magical beings, the Bunian seem shockingly incompetent in their selection of a ‘saviour’, but it seems to me that it’s the author who’s to blame for saddling alam dongeng with someone so ineffectual. If I’d edited this book, I’d have suggested that Sara be re-written, or else removed entirely.
As it turns out, although she is not the book’s ‘chosen one’, she is linked to the person who has the knowledge and will to save alam dongeng, but is unwelcome in that world. His story and Sara’s do not fit together well — it’s not that their agendas are different; it’s that he has one, but she hasn’t. Thus, what we have is mostly a story that meanders along without clear direction thanks to an ignorant, indifferent misery guts of a character who wets her pants at the mere mention of elves. As for the book’s true champion, he’s too much of an after-thought to save the story.
Dongeng needs a tighter plot and characters with better personalities and more purpose. Anna Tan, please get yourself a good editor.
Picked up this lovely story with an abundance of folklore, fantasy and adventure with a smidge of romance. Having spent time in Malaysia, this book enriched my insight into the country's rich mythology. Breezy yet thought-provoking weekend read, where I found myself rooting for Sara, and hoping things would turn out all right for her, while enjoying this strange yet familiar world of folktales.
I received an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Gave this 3.5 stars.
I like the rich folklore bursting in this book. The plot is very unique and it is a different kind of fantasy from the usual ones I read. There is a slight romance seen here and I think it's really appropriate not to focus more on the romance but more on the storyline.
There were times when I was confused because of the backstory happening here. But I was very pleased with the unexpected plot twist near the end. I was a bit spooked in some parts of the book (I can't handle creepy characters) but it was necessary for the plot and the inclusion was written really well.
There are a lot of characters and I got confused with their names. But it was so nice to get a glimpse of Malaysian folklore and I really did like that ending.
I enjoyed the story. Some parts were confusing, but by the end I could piece things together. I feel like the wrong characters were center stage to what could have been a stronger story about Abdul Mansoor and Aria.
I am a fan of blending cultures. After all, we share a beautiful world. Different families come together and create new families, blending together what was, what Is, and what will be.
I definitely would love to learn more about Maylasia, and her stories.
Definitely enjoyed this east meet west tale! A little slow at the start but picked up pace when the dark side appeared! I've enjoyed how the story was weaved with the folklore's but still felt relevant.
I was given a copy of an arc ebook by the author via Story Cartel in exchange for an honest review.
Firstly, let me state that I took several sittings in reading this book. Namely because I thought this book is in the horror genre but I'm lucky I thought wrong or I'd abandon it halfway. So because this book is more FANTASY and ADVENTURE I enjoyed myself immensely, except for some of the supposed horror parts which after that I laughed at myself when it didn't quite scare me. Thank God.
So, what's this story about? Alam Dongeng is in trouble. The realm of the Malaysian fairy folk is dying. They need a hero to save them so who did they find? Sara, a normal Malaysian Chinese girl with a penchant for writing but somehow is struggling to write about them to be remembered by all others. If she fails in her quest to get them written up or told about to others, the realm of the Malaysian fairy folk will cease to exist.
Why do I put the word Malaysian in front of the words fairy folk? Malaysian fairy folks consist of other beings that your charming Edward-nesque vampires or Smaug the dragon or even giants really differ from. It consists of many other much more scary and spooky variety of creatures such as the Lang Suir, mother of all pontianaks (pontianaks are a kind of vampires), Toyol which are child ghosts that gets attached to you, Orang Bunian (kind of like fairies) and Orang Kenit (kind of like imps) and many many others. It was a wonder reading about them in a book that's written in English and understanding all the Malaysian connotations and the smattering of Malay words permitted in it, it was like having a private conversation with the author that only you and she shares so that was awesome. I believe though that non Malaysians could understand the story well too because everytime there comes a matter of needing translation, the author did it beautifully without missing a beat.
Story plot wise it was nothing much, even though a lot was happening but still it could be better in terms of scale. Bigger scale the better I think. But since this is the second book, going big might be in other sequels. Going big meaning more obstacles, more conflicts because at times especially the first half it was so slow paced. Thank God it got a little bit more interesting in the middle and towards the end.
Characters were likable enough too but most of the times forgettable. I think Sara was quite forgettable in particular and Helmi the hero was so forgettable too. There's not quite a distinctive quality in them except for Sara's love of writing and Halim's concern for her. I would really like to know more about their quirks. Rozaimi's and Abdul Mansoor's characters are a little bit better than Sara's and Helmi's in my opinion. So I can't really tell who is my favourite character here human wise I mean but I'd in a beat say it's Sang Kancil character wise. He's the best character here, hands down. He's far more interesting than any other humans in this book, even the old lady Mary.
So all in all, not bad. It could be better though. It's still an interesting story enough and has good likable characters but I would enjoy it more if there's more at stake for the characters. The ending and conclusion felt too easy for me.
However, I enjoyed it somewhat so thank you to the author and Story Cartel for this arc ebook. I would recommend it to friends who would love anything Malaysian and anything about folklore. So, go read it guys.
Though at times confusing, Dongeng has moments of expressive language and an otherworldly charm to it even when Sara is in the “real” world, which pulled me into the story. Coming from a background where I know nothing of Malaysian folklore, Dongeng peaked my interest and I began looking the characters up on the internet, wanting to learn more. Two kingdoms exist in the same fantasy world where Sara wakes up at the beginning of the book: the folklore of Alam Dongeng, and historic Western Fairy Tales. Both are in peril because the Malay people are forgetting their roots, their own stories. Although the Fairy Tale part of that other world is still somewhat strong, the bond between the two means the fading away of the one would impact the other. Although Sara is the main character, Helmi becomes a close second with his grandfather being the true crux of the story. One thing I found confusing was that whenever the storyline switched to Abdul Mansoor, Helmi’s grandfather, and his background, he was referred to as ‘the man’ rather than by his name. I think, because his backstory is so important and his actions at the end of the book are vital, his character should have gotten more focus as an identifiable individual rather than the nonspecific ‘man’. Ms. Tan uses Sara as a means of drawing her readers into unfamiliar territory. Sara acts as a stepping stone into Malaysian folklore for those of us experiencing it for the first time. She is the outsider whose understanding is limited; Helmi stands as a go-between, explaining more; and grandfather offers us understanding and immersion. There are moments of darkness, and some shifts that confused me (it took me a while to figure out that Penglipur Lara was a title and not a misidentification of Sara as someone named Lara). All in all, though, I enjoyed the book, Sara’s and Helmi’s growing relationship, Abdul Mansoor’s character, and the interesting, newly-discovered characters like Garuda, Sang Kancil, and even Ataneq the adlet (though part of the Western Fairy Tale kingdom, I’d never heard of an adlet before.) This was a quick and thought-provoking read.
I love how Anna creates the backstory to create a suspense in the reader's mind and their curiosity to know what happens next. Although the story focuses on the protagonist, Sara, there are surprises that involves her manager's grandfather and his involvement in the confusion that she faces. There is a budding romance between Sara and her manager - all in the midst of searching for the reasons behind her sudden disappearance and safe return. It is not until towards the ending that the truth is revealed.
I was really looking forward to learning more about Malay mythology and lore from this book. And although it introduced me to a lot of characters and creatures, I feel that they were a little under-explained. But in the end, I can certainly appreciate a book about preserving fairy-tales and lore through storytelling. And the book gave me a lot of names that I'll need to research later - and I won't hold that against it!