Last year, I was humbled before Gautam Bhatia’s The Wall. It refused to conform to my hopes, remaining a solid and unforgettable presence through the year. So of course, it was not long until Gautam teased me with the fact that there was a sequel. I can’t tell you how excited I was at the prospect. And now that I’ve had a chance to gaze upon The Horizon, I can definitely say the future is bright. It builds upon everything The Wall set up and delivers on its premise in astounding ways. Obviously spoilers for the end of The Wall lay ahead.
It’s a new day in Sumer, at the least for those who know what happened that one fateful morning. Word hasn’t spread out through the streets yet, but someone did it. Mithila finally found a way over the wall. For a few days things seem normal. This doesn’t last long, however, as Mithila’s sister, Minakshi, finds herself the Matriarch of the Shoortans. It isn’t long before she seizes her moment and reinstates the Ostracism, a shunning practice that had been disbanded years ago as too harsh a punishment. And its target, Mithila is still nowhere to be found, presumed lost to the world outside the wall. Meanwhile, Rama, Mithila’s girlfriend, is pulled into the senate to succeed her father. But it’s not long before the current president has even bigger plans for Rama than she bargained for. And the tension is bubbling as the revolutionary slogans of the past begin to circle again throughout the streets.
My experience with The Horizon was definitively smoother than my initial reaction to The Wall. I did get lost in the myriad of new POVs that dominate the book, but it wasn’t too long (though I was helped supremely by the dramatis personae) before I found my footing in the buzzing hive that Sumer is outside of Mithila’s singular vision. Bhatia masterfully handles the various characters and the parts of society they exist in. The organizations that revolved around Mithila in The Wall are given flesh on top of their mysterious bones. The players who have made their names as the shapers of these organizations are towering figures, with their own drives crashing into Mithila’s. And while it’s hard to pick any favorite perspectives, I really have to hand it to Bhatia for diving in Minakshi’s side, and Rama’s too. They were all supremely fun characters, and Bhatia avoids having any single one of them fall into the “definitely bad guys” trope. While I didn’t agree with Minakshi, almost on any point, she still felt human in her flaws, allowing Mithila and their father to influence her reactions. Rama’s rise to power as the President is also compelling as it puts her in direct opposition with her former lover.
It doesn’t hurt that Bhatia clearly has a knack for a long-building tension. It was always clear that revolution and rebellion were in the cards for this story, but I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the final straw. It helps that there are three factions that all have friction with each other, allowing the balance of power to shift across a plane, causing an uneven sharing of control. Each group has clear goals that they set out to achieve and play to their differing strengths. The Dooma and the farmers rally around Mithila’s breaking of the barrier, forging alliances with the people of the five outer rings of Sumer. Rama is empowered with the strength of the Senate aiming for stability when everything is starting to crumble. And Minakshi has the full force of the Shoortans and their rigid adherence to the words of the Builders. There is so much to applaud about this dynamic, but the scenes in the streets when the barricades start to go up are especially moving.
Mithila’s journey outside the wall is almost pitch perfect. It’s awe-inspiring and has moments of being a little bit of a let down. There is so much to see, and Bhatia cleverly engages with language and what has been lost in Sumer. Words have to be rediscovered by Mithila as unused vocabulary has disappeared. Forests and seas both take her breath away and crush her with their seemingly unending nature. It was a joy to dig into what the world outside the Wall is, and I adored Bhatia’s approach to it.
As I mentioned before, it’s no secret where this book is heading. Clashes between the people in the city are foreshadowed throughout. As excited as I was for the cracks to rupture, and the people to seize their freedom, Bhatia exudes a much needed and subtle anxiety about the affair. Yes, people need more than a pittance to survive, and yes they should fight, but are they truly prepared to do so? How does it get so bad that such a rupture needs to occur? You can’t expect people to rollover, and what compromises will be made in order to keep alliances? Who dies on the barricades and is it worth it? These all become questions that the characters grapple with. Bhatia avoids the usual pitfalls, side stepping easy “violence is not the answer” rhetoric by examining what these folks want, and what they have been through. It’s not just slogans, cultural influence, or mob mentalities. They are real people being crushed by the society they provide for. So seeing them deal with these questions while their friends and family are out in the streets fighting brings it all into a sharper focus.
The book’s pacing is also a lot more steady. It starts slower while it winds up before unleashing itself upon the reader. The interpersonal tensions mix with the political ones, all the while Mithila is learning about the outside world. The Horizon is laden with neat little science fiction bits and pieces that never threaten to take over the story. They inform the inhabitants of the story, without becoming the story itself. It leads to twists and turns that spawn from the minds of the characters, instead of new kinks in the chain that have been long buried. There are twists and turns that give the story an edge I was not expecting. The larger cast makes this work extremely well, as each character becomes a cog in Bhatia’s Rube-Goldberg narrative. And where it all ends up is truly astonishing.
I could go into deeper detail about how much I loved Bhatia’s dive into what it means to revolt, and how it refuses to go in the direction you would hope or want. He avoids being cynical while providing hopeful insights into what should be done. I did not even dive into the various poems and songs that slide their way into the story, tying the various groups together through a shared memory and history. Ugh, I could blather on and on about all these little details that Bhatia infuses the story with that make it so incredibly enchanting, but luckily Bhatia does that for me, including an appendix of everything he knowingly draws from. That’s all to say, I really loved my time with The Horizon. It’s a beautiful book, and you owe it to yourself to read it.
Rating: The Horizon 9.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.