When considered as a whole, Tanvi Berwah’s debut novel Monsters Born and Made is an enjoyable and captivating ride. Broken down into parts, however, many aspects are confusing when it comes to the details and feel like engineered inclusions. There’s a rebellion, a competition that’s essentially to the death, and a corrupt authority figure. Although it’s engaging, the book ends up feeling quite cheesy and delivers a rather artificial conflict.
The novel follows Koral Hunter, a sixteen-year-old girl who hunts maristags — sea monsters — with her brother Emrik for the upper class in the Glory Race, the ultimate competition of this world in which charioteers race maristags. When Emrik is injured during a hunt and a maristag goes free, Koral’s forced to participate in the Glory Race, betting on the fact that winning the championship and the resources afforded to the champion will enable her family to survive. In the Glory Race, she must face Dorian Akayan, the “Golden Boy” with whom she shares a rocky past, along with other challenges that will test both her physical endurance and her will to survive.
Monsters Born and Made has a writing style that often feels quite fragmented. Sometimes conversations come across as overly complicated and rigid; it’s as if the intended meanings aren’t articulated clearly enough to the reader and Berwah has to compensate by interjecting a bunch of external information into every sentence. Ironically, that leads to more disorientation, as the reader’s constantly having to figure out what a character might be referring to or the whole background context of a scene taking place. In the end, the writing itself presents the opposite problem: a lot of terms are thrown around and not enough is explained.
That might be because the worldbuilding is so expansive. There’s a very strong visual element here with the island setting of Sollonia as well as the class distinction between Landers, people who live underground, and Renters, known as the “Others.” It’s arguably an original and interesting set-up, even if it does base its storyline off of the popular young adult trope of a competition. Still, Berwah distinguishes much of her competition by making each race inventive and suspenseful, adding sea monsters and mazes into the mix.
The way Berwah has stylized the world is absolutely mesmerizing. Just as Koral’s drawn to the ocean, so are readers to the story with powerful imagery. The craftsmanship of the world, from the Drome in which the races take place to the entirety of the island setting itself, is a really sensational work of creativity, a vivid aesthetic. When it comes down to relationships between characters and other forces, however, there’s much to be desired.
The relationship between Koral and Dorian appears to be a focus of the novel. It’s conceptually intriguing but lacks much narrative substance. While there’s some brilliantly crafted scenes of tension between the two characters, they’re pieces of gold in an otherwise contrived relationship. It seems like Berwah was trying to go all in on the emotional angst that often accompanies a classic enemies-to-lovers trope — Koral speaks at length about her mistrust of Dorian and his perceived betrayal of her to class differences — but the book doesn’t effectively channel that into a logical progression of events. There’s not really any chemistry between the two other than what Berwah blatantly tells readers.
The book is explicitly described as containing an exes-rivals-? dynamic (with the question mark being a nod towards a potential lovers relationship), but based on what Berwah tells us of Koral and Dorian’s past relationship, it’s unclear if the two were ever actually an item. Based on what readers know about their initial beginnings, it just seems like the two were timid friends. There’s not much depth there, and perhaps what might have alleviated that was more showing rather than telling or extended insight into the development of the relationship.
Even if the romance isn’t the most redeeming part of the novel, that doesn’t cancel out Koral and Dorian’s interactions. When the two fight against the monstrous aquabats in an attempt to manage an attack, their responses are exciting and the action is well-paced. There’s a physical synergy between the two in both the events of the Glory Race and in the world. Although this synergy is somewhat lacking in its romantic connotations, it’s still deserving of praise, especially when considering how Berwah animates the class system.
It’s this class system in a fantasy world that defines who Koral and Dorian are, and the setting is by far the most sensory and incredible part of Berwah’s writing. Even if the work isn’t born of boldness or individuality, Monsters Born and Made illustrates how a novel should be made — through a great imagination.