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★★★☆☆ Book Review: The Fisherman King by Kathrina Mohd Daud

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Bringing Bruneian folklore, mythology and royal drama to the forefront.

Of all the Southeast Asian countries out there, perhaps the one whose folktales least enters the shared consciousness of pop culture is Brunei’s. With Kathrina Mohd Daud’s The Fisherman King, readers get more than a taster of the country’s lore, with mythical creatures, ancient rituals, and royal blood thrown into the mix.

Framed as a story within a story, the novel primarily follows the fisherman Lisan, who left his wife and the Water Village eight years ago, suddenly returning to prove his descent from royalty. Taking two children in tow as he plumbs the depths of the waters around, what initially seems like a fairy tale of lost kings quickly turns into a nightmare, as he’s beset with god-like beasts, revealing secret histories and skeletons aplenty in the closet.

Oddly enough, amongst the Epigram Fiction Prize finalists, The Fisherman King comes across as one of the densest reads, despite being one of the shorter works. One reason for that could be Kathrina’s willingness to dive right into the heart of the scene without really easing non-natives into the book, allowing readers to be immediately immersed into the coastal setting without being aware of the full extent of the atmosphere and how infused with magic and mythology it is. As a non-native reading the book, there’s something powerful about the writing that feels almost mystical about the text as we pore over it, a timelessness imbued into the writing that allows such a story to be passed on from generation to generation.

One thing that’s been common across almost all of this year’s Epigram Prize finalists is how so many of them are concerned with the sea, with protagonists often embarking on quests to dive deep, both into the waters and into their own pasts to uncover secrets and treasured buried deep beneath. The Fisherman King is no different, and perhaps leads us to some of the darkest content yet, as Lisan’s unstoppable obsession seems to transform him and his perception of the world, a warning as to how achieving one’s dream may spell the end of another’s, along with a whole lot more sacrifices.

While the pacing does feel a little slow and patchy, The Fisherman King reaches a thrilling climax towards the third quarter of the book, as Lisan confronts the one thing standing between himself and his lost inheritance, forcing him to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life while chasing off vicious snakes (a personal fear of ours) and immense guilt. It’s a somewhat happy ending by the time it all concludes, a dark fairytale that leaves you a little more afraid than when you started, and certainly, curious to find out more about Brunei’s mysterious past and rich cultural heritage we have yet to uncover.

Recommended for: Readers interested in getting a taste of Brunei’s mythology and cryptids, and are in for a fairy tale of royal proportions. 

The Fisherman King is published by Epigram and available here

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