Reviewed by Eddie Wong. Posted December 21,2021.
Conrad J. Benedicto’s debut fantasy novel Musalaya’s Gift, published by Kularts, is a wild ride through a world richly populated by the Lukat people, forest creatures and sea monsters. As the Lukat throw off the shackles of oppression using their wits and sheer will, they harness the spiritual power rooted in cultural traditions. Their struggle takes them on a journey through the dense forests of Agmana, their homeland, where they battle monstrous creatures with spider crab hands and hooded ghouls who can only be vanquished by the blazing light from wooden staffs wielded by warrior/priests. Ordinary features of the forest, the trees and boulders, turn into magical creatures to aid the Lukat in their battle.
At the heart of this battle is a boy on the cusp of manhood, Alad Dumagid, a talented kulintang player, who must flee to the mountains as the ruler’s armies seek him out, marking him for death. His gift for music threatens them for only he can awaken an ancient power rooted in sound of a mysterious woman leader, Musalaya.
I’m not usually drawn to this genre as I’m more inclined to devour a Don Winslow thriller or non-fiction/memoir like Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, but I was captivated by Benedicto’s propulsive prose, which drives the story forward lyrically. The opening section of the book launches us on the journey as Alad and his entire village are attacked.
They stood still, trying to discern noises from above despite the downpour. It sounded as if a nest of giant snakes had been thrown onto their roof and the serpents were now trying to slither in through the thatched palm leaves.
“There!” Bagani whispered harshly. A section of the brown canopy above them parted and a shadowy thing slowly slid in. Alad recognized the tattered habit that cloaked something rotten. Sodden and drippy, it looked even more exhumed. A sudden foulness filled the air.
At the twang of his mother’s bowstring, an arrow buried itself into the creature’s neck. It fell with a weightless thud onto the bamboo floor. But moments later it arose soundlessly, drawing the arrow out. With a barely audible grunt, Bagani drew his sword and crossed the length between the ghoul and his family in a blur. Before its hands could remove his wife’s arrow, Bagani ran the creature through. A raspy hiss escaped its moldering lips before it slumped down on the floor.
But still it did not die. It raised its head and when it saw Alad, it reached out with a low gurgling snarl. Bagani grabbed an oil lamp and threw it at the ghoul. The oil splattered and the creature’s chest lit up in flames.
Benedicto’s writing is economical with short sentences sketching out the scene. He lets the characters drive the story forward as they reveal their fears, hopes, and desires. And before you know it, you are captivated by this adventure and the high stakes facing our hero.
As the reader follows Alad on his journey to Dagad Pass, where the final battle takes place, we also meet two female characters Rheya Ariyel, daughter of a Lord Governor and commander of a naval force, and Lualhati, an impetuous young woman who possesses the Sword of Undulating Flame. She is also Alad’s cousin, and all three characters are central to the defeat of the colonizers, the Perditians. In the final moments of the battle, when all appears to be lost for the Lukat warriors, the secret of Musalaya’s gift is revealed and only then will the tides turn towards the Lukat victory.
Benedicto’s story is rooted in the myths and legends told to him by ancestors in his native province in the Philippines. He lived there until he immigrated to the U.S. at age 13 along with the parents. These stories were interwoven with Benedicto’s study of kulintang music under master musician Danongan “Danny” Kalanduyan.
In the next video, a conversation between Conrad Benedicto and Kularts Director Alleluia Panis, the roots of the story and the larger theme of anti-colonial resistance and cultural preservation and reinvigoration are explored extensively.
Lastly, kulintang music runs through the novel as a deep spiritual undercurrent. In the next eight-minute video, Danongan “Danny” Kalanduyan explains the origins of kulintang music and its multiple expressions.