I absolutely adored Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildlings, so you can bet I gasp-squee’d with joy when I saw the ARC of its sequel and conclusion The Hundred Names of Darkness at a recent Penguin Random House Canada event.
It’s a story about alley cats in a Delhi neighbourhood called Nizamuddin. A house cat Mara serves as their Sender, which means she can use her whiskers to travel across great distances and communicate with other cats without ever leaving her house. In Wildlings, Mara’s powers prove instrumental in the Nizamuddin cats’ battle against a group of feral cats threatening to take over their territory.
Hundred Names of Darkness takes us deeper into Mara’s psyche. Human habitation threatens the neighbourhood hunting grounds, and Nizamuddin cats are struggling to find enough food to survive. The clan faces the very real possibility that they may need to find a new neighbourhood to call home. Traditionally, such big change is guided by the clan’s Sender, but all too aware of how odd her clan views her status as an indoor cat, Mara keeps herself apart. While Senders in other cities patrol their streets at night, ensuring the well being of their clans, Mara remains terrified of venturing beyond her home, and knows very little of the struggles her clan faces.
A parallel storyline involves a golf course a few neighbourhoods away, where cats, peacocks, bandicoots, rats and other wildlife live together in relative harmony, with plenty of hunting to be found. When a rogue bandicoot amasses an army to rise up in revolt and there aren’t enough cats and peacocks to defend the space, the delicate balance between the species is threatened, and the animals face the risk of humans taking the territory back away from them.
The title of the novel comes from a feline myth recounted midway through the book, about a powerful cat who travelled the world and, feeling empty, decided to seek out the cat who lives on the other side of the night. A battle with darkness itself ensues, and provides a beautiful metaphor for what it is Mara has to do in order to conquer her fear.
If I loved The Wildlings, I adored Hundred Names. What a thrilling and beautifully written conclusion to the Nizamuddin cats’ tale! It’s fantastic to see Mara grow up, from a frightened kitten who broadcasts her thoughts to random neighbourhoods, to an adult cat who embraces her destiny and explores the full extent of her powers. I also loved seeing old favourites again, the warrior queen Beraal now a doting mother, the trouble-making Southpaw now a full fledged hunter with a strong sense of duty to his clan, and warriors Katar and Hulo now aged and while still strong, definitely weatherbeaten. We also meet Hatch, the child of Wildlings’ Tooth and Claw and a cheel afraid to fly. His muttered “whatever”s bely the depth of his fear, and I loved seeing Mara draw from her own experiences to help him face his fears.
Mara’s Bigfeet play a somewhat more visible role in this story, and there are a lot more references to Indian food and to other Delhi neighbourhoods, which I loved because it gave this story a much stronger sense of place than Wildlings. Whereas Wildlings felt like it could have been written about one of many other neighbourhoods, Hundred Names gave a much clearer picture of Nizamuddin, and its use of human markers made the place feel more tangible to its human readers.
I also loved meeting Senders from other neighbourhoods. These scenes give Mara a chance to learn more about her role as Sender, as well as situate the Nizamuddin cats among a much larger community of cats across the region. And I absolutely loved learning more about Mara’s mother and the circumstances in which she ended up at the drain pipe where her Bigfeet found her.
The duology’s story seems to grow up in this instalment much like Mara does. Whereas the conflict in Wildlings is tough and exciting (feral cats encroaching on territory!), the conflict here feels more subdued, wistful, un-winnable without necessarily being hopeless. It’s time for the Nizamuddin clan to move on, and fight though they might, there’s a sense of inevitability about it as well, for how much can they really fight against human progress? If Wildlings is about fighting for what’s yours, Hundred Names is about knowing when the fight is over and it’s time to move on. The ending is filled with hope, but the taste is bittersweet, and even Mara’s exploration of the extent of her powers is tinged by the realization of the responsibilities that come with the role of Sender.
I can’t say enough good things about this book and this duology as a whole. If you loved The Wildlings, you’ll enjoy this book and delight in returning to the company of Mara and the Nizamuddin cats. If you haven’t read The Wildlings yet, I highly recommend giving it a try if you like cats and stories of magic, friendship and the importance of home.
As an aside, in my review of Wildlings, I mentioned my disappointment that the Canadian edition didn’t include the beautiful illustrations that I hear were in the original edition. Hundred Names also likely misses out on many of these sketches, but I thought the two they did include are beautifully evocative. You can almost feel the softness of the cats’ fur. (If anyone sees this edition still in print, I’d love to know!)
Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.