THE KISHI by Antoine Bandele (SPFBO Semi-Finalist Review)
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) has reached the end of round 1. We spent the last five months cutting our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, the fourth of which (The First of Shadows) was eliminated yesterday. Today, we say goodbye to our last semi-finalist, which is…
The Kishi—shape-shifting demons who lure young women to gruesome deaths.
They can’t be real, can they?
Something has slain a villager, and the locals of Bajok point their fingers at Amana, a pacifist monk running from his dark past.
But Amana knows there’s something else, something much darker, lurking in the village.
Can he save the village, his name, and his principles? To save one would mean the sacrifice of the others, if he has the strength.
Perfect for fans of Nnedi Okorafor, Garrett Robinson, Evan Winter, Brandon Sanderson, Nightblade, Dungeons & Dragons, and Lord of the Rings.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
The cover is eye-catching, albeit kind of spoilery, but more importantly, The Kishi has one of the most striking opening chapters I’ve read during the contest so far. The atmosphere is celebratory and vibrant, but underscored with tension and threat. This gradually escalates into outright violence verging on horror when the boundaries between magic and superstition are torn away. I loved this from the very outset!
I don’t like the cover much, especially as it is actually a big spoiler.
The opening scene almost had me give up on the book, as there was a creepy – romance? If one can call it that… – scene with “throbbing breast” and all. Luckily this is not at all the direction the rest of the book was going, and I was hooked at the end of chapter two.
I agree the cover has a big spoiler – but since the nature of the Kishi comes out fairly early on in the story that’s perhaps not such a big issue. However, the physical architecture – physiology – of these creatures is hard to get to grips with in my imagination and the cover doesn’t really help. I mean if you thought Voldemort on the back of professor Quirrell’s head was bad then this conjoined human-hyena hybrid stretched my inner eye somewhat.
I wasn’t a fan of the cover either! It’s striking, and the artwork is of a high quality, but it gives the game away quite quickly! There’s a beautiful coloured map – I do love a good map – so once past the cover my initial impressions were favourable. “Throbbing breasts” aside, the tone of the first chapter was great, like we were in a folk tale.
Unfortunately, I found the story was less and less polished as we progressed. The prose was sometimes quite clunky or stilted: “Amana walked over to the chair next to Uzoma, listing a hand for permission. Uzoma nodded his approval, allowing his guest to sit.”
Also, the narrative didn’t always flow very well; for example, at the end of chapter fourteen into the beginning of chapter fifteen, the plot continues without a break, but the first line of the new chapter is almost an exact repeat of the last line of the previous. It felt like you could see where Bandele had stopped writing for the day.
Let me just start by saying that having read this book, I am a HUGE fan of it. But not so much the cover. As the others have said, it certainly catches the eye, but I wouldn’t call it eye catching. The map on the other hand…spot on!
I agree with my fellow judges that the polish thinned and the production values of the writing lost some of its shine as the story continued, but regardless, I wanted to keep reading. It could do with a line edit – though I have said that for the majority of books in our batch – but this was still a page turner for me.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
I enjoyed the characters, and especially the different POV to all the usual medieval Europe type of fantasy books. The dialogue was mostly well done, and only rarely sounded a bit stilted to me. I enjoyed spending time with them, and most of the time I understood their motivations and they felt quite real to me.
I found the protagonist, Amana, to be sympathetic and engaging, and I particularly appreciate how much of an active part he took in events (investigating/pursuing the Kishi rather than just waiting to be caught up in events). The secondary characters – Nya, Uzoma, and even those with far less page time – felt fully defined, well-rounded products of their own cultures who existed independently of the protagonist.
I liked Amana. There was something atypical about him which was revealed as the story went on. His personal quest, his physical shortcomings (e.g. a paunch) and the inner darkness that haunts him made him more rounded and real than many characters. I liked Nya – but that’s because she’s a badass female warrior with attitude. I felt she deserved a better story arc. Uzoma also has a certain presence in the text that conveys his stature in the story – powerful yet enigmatic.
Bandele’s characters are distinctive, I felt many of them had quite strong voices. Amana was a great protagonist, there was plenty of mystery in his background and despite the demeanor he tries to portray, it becomes clear he’s quite flawed. This theme of things not being what they seem extended beyond the Kishi.
No one in life is perfect. Nor are any of the characters in this story – both as people, and as, well, characters. However, I found there was something about them that I couldn’t help but be drawn to. As Amana’s story unfolds, the raw reality of his situation really added to his character. I admit that I wanted more from Nya’s story, but still, I enjoyed what was provided.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
Pacing was fine overall, but a few times it seemed rushed or slow. After the initial first chapter I was reading steadily, and don’t remember being thrown out of the story or having a hard time following it at any point.
We stay pretty much in Amana’s head the whole time and follow through events in a chronological fashion which gives a reasonable coherence to the story.
I did have some issues with the plot and pacing of the story. There were moments that were exciting, and quite tense. There were times when the story was really quite atmospheric.
However, there were times I felt the pace slow down. Moments when Amana was struggling to learn the language, or his travels back and forth to Uzoma’s… I don’t think Bandele managed to strike the balance quite right.
As events picked up, I felt they were not always exactly coherent? For example, it was clear the Bajok tribe were no longer happy with Nya – but I wasn’t sure why, or what she’d done to warrant this? Little aspects like this mounted up to leave me feeling like I hadn’t quite connected with this story.
Like Beth, I felt the story didn’t flow quite as smoothly in the later portions of the book, and the prose also seemed to grow rougher. However, the characters and the story itself carried me through; I was fully invested in the fate of the characters, and utterly captivated by the sinister depths of the Kishi’s infiltration of the village.
I agree that the plot and pacing was a little off at times, but in hindsight, I think its ebb and flow also felt different to read than typical fantasy books. In part because it was going for more of a folklore-type telling, maybe? I don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily need cutting back, but a trim would help sharpen up the structure. Regardless, like Laura, the characters and story are what saw me to the finish line with a smile on my face.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
As said above, I really enjoyed the different setting and background for this one. I enjoyed learning what a Kishi is and what they do. I also really liked following the tribes and their traditions. A few times things seemed to happen the way they did just for the plot, or felt a bit unrealistic even for fantasy, but all in all I was happy to suspend my disbelief for the time it took me to read the whole story.
I think the world building is an obvious strength – it is inherently refreshing for us to move beyond the traditional medieval kind of fantasy setting, and the cultures of Africa are under-utilised in fantasy. Also aspects of the magic system appealed – the idea of weaponised empathy, a kind of super-charisma that enabled the Kishi to subdue without weapons.
The world building is absolutely where this book shined! I agree with Theo, it was definitely refreshing. A magic system based upon spirits and emotions, and complex villains – not just that we’re dealing with demons that are able to walk along ordinary people, but also their motivations and what makes them monstrous.
I was quite disappointed when the occasional turn of phrase threw me out of the world; for example, they often make reference to hours (distance calculated by how many hours’ walk it is), yet it’s a society that doesn’t have clocks. It may seem like a minor thing, but it’s surprising how much it can spoil the effect. I wanted to be immersed deeper into this African-inspired world, but there was always something pointing to the illusion.
I’ve been craving more African-inspired fantasies since reading Evan Winter’s Rage of Dragons earlier this year. Whereas RoD is an epic fantasy, The Kishi is more folklore, but even so, from the get-go it was a welcome addition to my TBR.
As I said in my mini review, this book had me intrigued from the very moment I heard the title. ‘The Kishi’ – a word I had heard before, but couldn’t quite recall fully. I have to thank Wikipedia for putting me right. A Kishi is a being from African folklore (Angolan specifically) that is a highly charismatic male humanoid… but with a hyena face on the back of its head. They prey upon women using their charm and wit, and once they’ve lured them in, they kill and, well, eat them. In modern parlance, think Quirinus Quirrell from Harry Potter (who has Voldemort’s face on the back of his head) crossed with a D&D Gnoll, who has a +5 charisma modifier, sneak attack, and advantage on bite attacks.
With this in mind, I was expecting an African-inspired folklore type fantasy with added romance, and a little bit of horror. And if that is what you’re looking for, then the Kishi will not disappoint you.
For me, Bandele’s worldbuilding was enthralling and authentic, and for the most part I felt thoroughly immersed in the events and residents of the village of Bajok.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
When Amana is a little sensitive about the concept of a love child, Uzoma responds:
‘Don’t fret about it. We’re all children of passion, are we not?’
The Kishi was always a worthy semi-finalist. But there were occasional anachronisms of language – use of modern idioms that unsettled my immersion. There were some places where the plot could have been drawn a little tighter to avoid the sense that characters were being needlessly stupid. There were other places where I wanted a more even-handed representation of some of the women. It wasn’t simply things like throbbing breasts, but the fact that two male deities get names and areas of provenance, but their two female counterparts are as anonymous as Tolkien’s blue wizards.
Unfortunately, I just didn’t enjoy this one so much. As Theo said, a tighter plot and some better representation (“She was still beautiful for her age—if a little portly.”) and this story would have been much higher in my ranking.
I have to say: this was my chosen finalist. It came down to The Kishi and A Tale of Stars and Shadow for me, but there was something raw, real and oh so rich about The Kishi that I couldn’t ignore. Yes it has its faults, especially around the treatment of women, and yes it could do with some TLC to really flourish, but it had me under its spell. Just like the Kishi’s charm, this lured me in, and then bit down, and didn’t let me go.
***Commiserations to Antoine Bandele and his Angolan-inspired fantasy folklore/horror The Kishi.***
Phase 2 of the contest begins next week! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard over the next five months here.
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
And if you have no idea what’s going on here, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!