By Lim Yong Le (22S03M) and Mirella Ang (22A01C)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
When you think of fairytale adventures, what do you imagine? Pixies, gnomes, dragons, unicorns—basically any creature from Western mythology—usually come to mind, thanks to the popularity of works from the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.
Casting these aside, Mist-Bound: How to Glue Back Grandpa daringly taps into a repository of lesser-known, yet equally interesting mythical creatures hailing from legends originating in South-East Asia.
Local writer Darryl Kho’s debut novel tells the tale of a young girl named Alexis who goes on an adventure with her grandmother and frenemy kenit (forest-imp in Malay folklore) Riff to save her grandfather’s mind. She has to travel to the enchanted land of Mist and collect 8 extraordinary ingredients to brew Memory Glue, the only thing able to piece her grandfather’s mind back together.
An ambitious fantasy world created by the collision of multiple pieces of age-old Asian folklore, the world of Mist is complete with lush forests, vast seas and a multitude of fantastical denizens that enthral the reader. As we embark on a magical journey with main character Alexis, the childlike wonderment that we had missed for so long comes flooding back as we join her to overcome increasingly dangerous challenges to procure exotic ingredients such as nose hair from a baku (dream-eater).
Vivid, hand-drawn illustrations breathe life into the sea of words, allowing the make-believe world of Mist to be appreciated in all of its splendour.
From the get-go, Kho presents Alexis as a magnanimous, big-hearted little girl who despite her temper and impulsiveness (which is expected given she’s a literal child) is the sweetest and most forgiving of all the characters in the book. She chooses to save Riff time and time again, even though his antics are what often land them in hot water; she treats the creatures she meets on the way with kindness, like how she goes out of her way to liberate the Dyaks (sea nomads) from the clutches of the Duyung (Malayan sea siren).
Undeterred despite being thrown into a strange land, where she is the single ordinary human in a sea of magical beings, Alexis becomes the most powerful character in the book with her wielding a weapon of kindness. It is her goodwill that makes her magical, and it is the selfishness in Riff that strips him of his magnificence.
But on the other hand, the relationship Alexis has with her grandfather is a loving, sweet, and heart-warming one to read about. His importance to both Alexis and her grandmother is established quickly within the first few lines of the book—with his quotes being by far some of the most beautiful lines in the whole novel.
“Stories are the soil upon which dreams grow, and dreams are the buds within which Hope dwells. And hope, my princess, is one of the most precious gifts of all.”– Grandpa
However, not all things are bright and beautiful—the issue that children’s books often face proved to be this book’s downfall as well. The smattering of antagonists which stood in Alexis’ way ended up being poorly-developed, making thoughtless decisions that left us scratching our heads. One in particular, General Apinya of the royal Nangmai (Thai forest nymph) army who had also installed herself as the Nangmai ruler, was particularly disappointing. Here was a perfidious villain who had managed to oust the reigning monarch Lady Tasanee, and yet was easily outsmarted and defeated by a young child.
We were even more dissatisfied with Alexis’ grandmother as a character. The whole reason Alexis went to the land of the Mist was because her grandmother was the lost Crown Princess Tricia; and yet the royal heir seemed to be the least familiar of them all with her own kingdom. The responsibility of navigating this fantasy land fell on Alexis, who had not even known of the Mist before. We were thus dismayed to realise that the grandmother was nothing more than a weak supporting character meant to prop up the protagonist.
Finally, an issue that irked us to no end was the relentless usage of onomatopoeia cluttering every page. Used sparingly, sound effects can engage the reader and evoke a high-stakes action scene. However, the sheer volume of ALL CAPITAL keyboard smashes was excessive even for a children’s book, having a detrimental effect as boredom gave way to annoyance.
Paper-thin characters aside (they are, after all, characters imprinted on a page), Kho’s infusion of various Southeast Asian mythology was spellbinding, to say the least. It transformed the story from your generic modern-day-fairytale to an eclectic mix of legends.
His cast of characters included the Mrenhkongveal (Cambodian brownies), the Garuda (eagle-like creature originating in Hindu and Buddhist epics), and the Batuan (Indonesian rock troll). Though the sheer number of mythological allusions really put our knowledge of Southeast Asian folktales to shame, we thoroughly enjoyed reading about the beasts we grew up knowing about.
“What are dreams but memories just waiting to be made? Like ink, waiting to be spilt unto paper and woven into words.”– Grandpa
In general, Mist-bound: How to Glue Back Grandpa is an inventive and whimsical children’s book. Were we 10-years-old, the book would have been an easy 5/5. Sadly, we have aged considerably, causing the book’s flaws to become more noticeable to our now-discerning eyes. The fantasy genre is also oversaturated with many other quality works of children’s fiction, so we had to bump this one back down a little in comparison.