From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Keeper of Light and Dust

How to describe Natasha Mostert’s Keeper of Light and Dust? The concept of chi, though rooted in ancient lore, is clearly fantastical when used to kill others to thus sustain a vampiric eternal youth. But when I think of “fantasy,” no matter the subgenre, I can recall nothing remotely similar to Mostert’s novel. The story itself is a thrilling, concise tale of love and morality. The setting, modern-day London, may be urban, but this is not urban fantasy. Chinese mythology plays an integral role, but this is not mythological or historical fantasy. It is just, well, an entertaining mainstream novel that happens to involve impossible realities.

Mia Lockhart Cortez is a Keeper, just like her mother and her mother’s mother and all the women before her: a warrior, a healer, a defender and protector. While working as a tattoo artist, Mia practices her craft for select professional boxers at the martial arts dojo she frequents. Now, however, “Dragonfly” lurks in the shadows, searching out the men with the most “heart” in order to drain them of their vital life energies.

Adrian Ashton is a chronobiologist—a sleep scientist—as well as a martial artist. He has mastered the art of manipulating chi, not only within his own body but in others’. And even as he attracts Mia’s attention, he is enacting a double existence as Dragonfly—whose next target, Mia’s childhood friend and lover Nick, will force an inevitable, painful confrontation.

When I try to analyze this novel, I compare it to the fantasy standards with which I am familiar—and I fail to understand it, because the subtle markers and indicators are simply not present. There’s nothing wrong with anything, per se, but nothing feels quite right. The plot is tight and suspenseful; the style is simple and not detracting; the characters are realistically drawn and motivated; the dojo setting is vivid; the overall reading experience compelled me to keep reading. Minor characters can be flat at times—for instance, Nick’s company partner Flash is a stereotypical (but loveable) computer geek who saves the day. I thought the major themes, conflicting love and the ethics of chi manipulation, traditional but polished.

Yet if anyone were to ask me whether I liked the book, my answer would be a hesitant no. I enjoyed reading it, but I did not like it (through no fault of Mostert’s, certainly). Since I lack experience in reading—much less critiquing—mainstream thrillers, I can only speculate that Mostert knows better how to write in that genre than in fantasy. I would not recommend her to a fantasy lover, because she will not meet their incoming expectations.

Magic in Keeper of Light and Dust is deeply integrated into plot and character. By any method of adding up the numbers, Mostert has written a fantasy novel. But in essence, Keeper is not fantasy—one perceives an indescribable shift in tone, in style, in unwritten audiences. And so my verdict is ambivalent; is this a good book? Perhaps you should read it (or hear it described) and decide for yourself.

Lisa Bao is an aspiring writer, amateur reviewer, and expert reader who loves genre fiction for the extra depth (beyond that of silly mainstream “literature”) of otherworldly alienation. She was born in one country, is a citizen of another, and has currently resided longest in a third. She also maintains an informal booklog at a top-secret location and considers herself perfectly unqualified to criticize—thus, who better to be a critic?

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