Delacorte Books for Young Readers, $17.99 hardbound, ISBN-10 0385744412, January 2015
When rhesus monkeys are brutally massacred on the dusty streets of Kolkata by a troop of power-hungry langur monkeys, Mico, a privileged langur, becomes entangled in the secrets at the heart of his troop’s leadership and is shocked at what he discovers. He feels compelled to help the few surviving rhesus, especially Papina, a young female he befriends, even though doing so goes against everything he’s been taught. As more blood is spilled, Mico realizes that choosing between right and wrong won’t be easy.
My initial reaction: Wait, a YA novel about monkeys? Not about kids saving monkeys like Endangered or Threatened, but actually about the inner lives of monkeys? That’s insane…which means that either the editor who said yes to it was high at the time, or the book is, in reality, something special.
As it turns out, the “something special” option is correct.
I think the first instinct everyone has when discussing a novel with animal protagonists is to trot out the Watership Down comparisons, most notably “Does for (insert species here) what Watership Down did for rabbits.” May I just say that as far as I can tell, Watership Down did precisely beans for rabbits? Our species is still wearing their species and selling their species quartered and frozen in the aisles of select grocery stores. (Full disclosure: I had a pet rabbit called Basil and loved him very much, and if you wear or eat rabbit voluntarily, I will think less of you and probably tell you so.) I think the compliment is poorly phrased. However, if used to mean that whatever new animal-centered novel is comparable to Watership Down, I don’t think it’s ever true. I cannot think of a single novel with animal protagonists that approaches Watership Down in scope and mastery. Heck, I can’t think of many novels about human protagonists that match up to the adventures of Hazel-rah & Co.
Another comparison I’ve heard in the case of Monkey Wars is that it compares to Animal Farm. That’s a fairer parallel because it does deal with a totalitarian regime. However, Animal Farm is satire. Monkey Wars is serious. It’s genocide. It’s the Holocaust. It’s tyranny and resistance and false flag attacks, families torn apart and innocents tortured at the drop of a hat, or in this case, a mango. It’s the corruptible seeking the corruption of absolute power, and the strong trying to fight their way to the truth. Blood, intrigue, romance, murder most foul… Perhaps the most accurate comparison to make is with Shakespearian tragedy. Getting readers to pick it up may be a challenge, but once they’re in, they’ll stay with it.
Recommend to: Anyone interested in stories of conspiracy, action, and conflicted heroes. Be aware that although the protagonists are animals, this book is on a teen/adult level of interest, and it contains quite a bit of graphic violence.
To buy or not to buy: A first purchase for YA collections and high school libraries.