The Many Ways Janus Silang is a Good Read

This is Janus Silang’s last stop in the realm of Titser, Titser! in the course of its seven-day tour of the blogosphere. Janus Silang’s first visit to Titser, Titser happened on 28 Apr when I unwrapped my copy of Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon. Janus visited us a second time yesterday 2 May during a “hyperreal” interview with multi-awarded author Edgar Calabia Samar, creator of the #JanusSilang young adult series. For this last pit stop, Janus Silang gets a book review from Titser, Titser!

Edited: 8 May 2014 Mostly improved the writing because it was sloppy

Look at that cover full of enigma! I like covers that by themselves can spark the reader's imagination.

This beautiful cover is the masterful work of Borg Sinaban.

Let’s Gush About Book Covers

I used to ogle fantasy books in elementary and high school before I would rent them out. I would stare and immerse myself in the narrative possibility hinted at in the book cover. Then I’d turn the book around to read the blurb. Then, I would return to the cover to stare at it again, adding the details I’ve learned, refining my hunches about the story. I was already building a story in my mind with just the cover and the blurb. I was directing my imagination. This is the power of evocative book covers. They set reader’s expectations, and more importantly, they also rouse up our inner curiosity for story, for discovery. See, you can always judge a book by its cover.

This is what the book cover of Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon does to the letter. Look at it, aren’t you intrigued? When I looked at this for the first time, a horde of questions and hunches let loose in my head straightaway. Let’s humor this line of thinking for a moment:

What is a boy doing inside a cave? This must be Janus Silang. What is he wearing around his neck? Is that an anting-anting? Is it meaningful that he’s wearing a red shirt?

If I read his body language, it looks like he’s skulking about. It’s because of the way his legs and arms are drawn, like he’s taking extra care to be quiet. He’s also looking behind him. Like he’s afraid of something.

If the title is any hint, could it be he’s afraid of a tiyanak? And that word Tabon, is that the Tabon from Araling Panlipunan? Well if that’s it, then Janus is in Tabon cave in Palawan! But what does that have to do with a tiyanak?! Does the tiyanak live in a cave? That’s an odd setting to place a story. I hate to admit I don’t know where this story’s going.

That was roughly my thought process before I even opened the book! I’m sure you formed your own predictions about this story from our short exercise. This proves how effective the book cover is by artist Borg Sinaban. It prepares the reader for the story that follows by stoking the fire of our imagination and feeds our motivation to embark on a quest for story. We want to know if we are right. We want to discover what we do not know yet to make better hunches. This is our inner curiosity awakened. As a reader, I always find it a joy to be on this brink of finding out. Of course, there is the risk of disappointment or coming out of the story changed, but these are risks every reader takes to partake in the rewards of reading. As a teacher, I always hope for students to see reading as a rewarding experience. It is easier for students to think so when the curious cat inside them is awake and ready to play. A beautiful and evocative book cover always helps in this regard.

Finally, Let’s Talk About the Story

On the surface, the premise behind Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon reminded me of three other narratives: 1) the .hack anime series, 2) RPG Metanoia, an official entry in the 2010 Metro Manila Film Festival, and 3) Cory Doctorov’s For the Win. If you are familiar with these three narratives, you’ll understand why this first book flouted all my expectations. Janus Silang shares a basic plot with these three: teenagers play online role-playing games then something terribly wrong happens. But where the three take a science-y route, Edgar Samar takes his story down the path of the Tiyanak, and that is to say, the fantastic. Interestingly for us Pinoys, the fantastic is also a foot trail to our past because that’s where our old lore went to escape the friar burnings. Not many people use this path in search of our forgotten history or culture, though this is changing nowadays with the popularization of speculative fiction. In that regard, I read Janus Silang as a product of its time, as part of the articulation of a generation of writers and artists about identity, history, culture, Filipino literature – about where we are now and where we could be heading.

Yet despite its milieu teeming with speculative fictional forays to mine our Filipino-ness, especially in komiks, I feel that Janus Silang is a bit of a lone voice. Well, not too lonely as to be solitary. But there are few like it who succeed in what it’s trying to do, which is push Filipino literature forward with a firmer grasp on and articulation of our identity. Then again, I am likely limited by the Filipino literature that I do read, which is mostly komiks. That said, lone or otherwise, Janus Silang succeeds superbly in its myth building. It weaves archaeology and folklore, scientific knowledge and non-scientific knowledge (strange bedfellows though they are) into a believable tale of why things are. It’s greater success is in bringing old tales to life, not as they have always been but in forms they would take in our always present modernity. Samar has brought to the page indigenous archetypes that have long been relegated by foreign systems of knowledge (read: Western ideology, colonial mentality) into the darkness of the night or the beastliness of the wilds. They are now here, you know – the bayani, the anito, the tiyanak – they are on the page, in broad daylight. They are no longer the belief of heathens in Samar’s book, but a means of expressing our Filipino identity.

Juno fan art! My favorite character in the series.

Juno fan art! My favorite character in the series.

As a social studies teacher, I am excited by the prospect of using this book in the classroom to spark interest in the past, perhaps about indigenous systems of knowledge or even in the different ways we create our national identity, either through history or myth. The book is also useful in beginning a discussion on issues of interest to adolescents such as romantic relationships, conflict with parents, dealing with rules and responsibilities, exploring one’s identity, and even preparing for the future.

But, at the end of the day, I enjoyed Janus Silang not because of what it can do for me in the classroom, but because in and of itself Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon is a good read. It has a protagonist with an authentic voice. Nothing could illustrate this better than Janus cussing in all the right places. I can tell because I was an avid online gamer in my teens, too. I have tried being the only girl in an internet cafe full of roaring, cursing, and yelling boys and man-boys. Samar’s Janus is also convincing as a curious teenager still forging an identity and exploring relationships with girls. As are the worried but clueless adults in the book’s pages, and more importantly, it’s villain of all villains in the person of the Tiyanak. It is sly and terrifying. Perhaps a mouse being toyed with by a cat we find cute and adorable best describes the Tiyanak’s hold over Janus and ourselves. It is definitely the most horrible evil brat in the history of the Philippines ever.

I do have some concern over the gender balance in the book. I did a listing and found that all active roles or positions of power are given to male characters (Janus, Papa, Harold, Boss Serj, Renzo, Joey, Kapitan, Konsehal). These characters are the most fleshed out. Mica who gets the most mileage of all the female characters, on the other hand, is mostly confused and teary-eyed. All the rest of the female cast are mothers and grandmothers who are either sick with worry or are sitting at home and passive. The most powerful female in the book is in Tabon cave, but even her power there is precarious. Tala on the other hand, is in danger of being portrayed as an object of desire, sought by the hero in his coming-of-age into manhood. I understand that this is only the beginning of a series and will give it the benefit of the doubt at this point. I do hope that Janus Silang lives up to be a genuine alternative to the popular young adult romance novels marketed to girls at present, and not just a complement in the book shelf so that teenage boys, too, can have their fix.

To the book’s credit, there is a sense that the author is still in the process of building a world, setting up. Things might not be what they seem. The book makes sure to teach us this, after all. We navigate the online world of TALA and the town of Balanga through Janus’ eyes, uncovering one juicy tidbit of information after another only to find out in the end, that the Tiyanak has led us astray, despite the many warnings author Edgar Samar left for readers throughout the book. May dalawa na. Sino ang ikatlo? Nasaan ang ikatlo?

We have been tricked, and feel very bad for Janus. But the story seeker in us knows this can’t be the end. We have to redeem ourselves as readers. The Tiyanak can’t be tricking us all the time. We will do better next time. For myself, I’ll be damned if I don’t learn a thing or two about being a wise pusong. So I went back and listed all the levels of TALA and the monsters in each one. I read up about Janus and Juno in Greek and Roman mythology. Just in case there’s a lead there somewhere. I’m wondering if it means something that Mica is spelled with a “c” and not a “k”. I’m paying attention to that pagsundot-sundot ng dilang-karayom ng manananggal on Janus’ heart. See, I have my eyes pealed. I will not be tricked by the Tiyanak anymore. I’m ready for book two. Bring on the tambalang manananggal-mambabarang.

For updates on the #JanusSilang series, follow Janus through http://www.facebook.com/JanusSilang. You can also follow #JanusSilang author Edgar Calabia Samar via @ecsamar on Twitter.

For a chance to win a free copy of the book, join the giveaway raffle on Rafflecopter. A preview of the book’s first chapter can also be read via Talarchives.net or wattpad.

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