A story is a reflection of a specific place, cast of characters, and as the above states, the lie that binds their lives together—the imperfection by which our narrative is framed. The place is Gubat Banwa, the Warring Realm where the mighty and powerful clash in an eternal state of battle, divorced from the yoke of colonialism and bolstered by great martial and magical power. The cast of characters is led by Bakongsinhiwahiwa, only one of many names attributed to our titular, hero-murdering princess, a demoness who has sought to defy destiny. And the lie that binds them together is that of a Hero of Prophecy, destined to unite the Sword Isles beneath a single banner, unless and until he is defeated. But we know that she will accomplish this great feat—it would not be an epic if we did not know that the great deed will be done.
When considering the concept of the historical or fantastical epic, it has often been my subconscious instinct to reach out for those examples that exist within the Western context. The stories of King Arthur and his Round Table, the Nibelungenlied, the Odyssey, the Prose Edda, and even the Fianna Cycle come far more easily to me than the epics from my own home. Many of these subscribe to the narrative most often called the Hero’s Journey, a tried and familiar plot structure where a lone hero is called upon to find their fate; to change and save the world.
But from the very start and up until its latest chapter, the web serial Princess Murders the Hero spits in the face of this Western tradition, a signature of its author, Makapatag. His is a body of work that centers the folklore, myth, and precolonial cultures of their native Philippines, writing not only novels of the fantastical and bloody but creating role-playing games that allow players to create fantastical stories of their own. These lands they have carved from letters and dreams are not for that form of journey, for those who would impose their will and “heroics” on a people that are not in need of saving. Violence is not a tool of the oppressor, but an instrument for making one’s mark upon the world—asserting freedom in the face of those who would eradicate it for the sake of “peace”. And its demons are not beings to be slaughtered but equally worthy of respect, neither animal nor uncaring beast but as vibrant as we humans are. In many ways, it is a criticism and challenge not only of literary conventions but cultural and historical ones. In particular, of the demonization and othering of non-whites by their colonizers under a singular banner of “Indian/Indio,” a practice that asserts those who live a different way of life as uneducated barbarians who require saving from themselves.
That being said, the “humanity” and complexity of said characters is not always initially apparent. Though we are introduced to our princess and members of her retinue in quick succession, due to the digital nature of its presentation the individual chapters of Princess Murders the Hero can bleed into each other within the endless scrawl. It makes the multitude of names, terms, and identifiers more difficult to parse than page by page distinction, with precise character beats being drowned out beneath exposition. But we can see shadows of familiar archetypes to hold onto—the princess torn between duty and freedom, the ever-devoted servant, the rascal of a mascot, the heavy-drinking and boisterous mentor. In this way, Princess Murders the Hero allows us to engage in a more “Eastern” style of storytelling—the journey of enlightenment and profound change not of a singular hero, but of a joint ensemble.
The prose of Princess Murders the Hero has an unapologetically lyrical quality, dispensed as if it is being told orally rather than written for us to read. Makapatag speaks of razor-edged demons, hands raised in a glorious call, and spider lilies that bloom in the darkness as if they are both fantastical and commonplace—mythologies that sit side-by-side with mankind rather than being distant from it. They are also not shy when utilizing unexplained words from another language. You may see references to a panday next to users of barang and busali, none of these italicized, in a deliberate move that implies familiarity of languages and cultures instead of distance. It may seem initially off-putting to a reader unfamiliar with the languages of the archipelago, but it is no more dense to sit through than the Elvish and Dwarven terminology of Lord of the Rings, or the numerous and lengthy pronouncements of the warriors in the Iliad.
On a personal note, there is something gratifying in seeing the absolute normality with which these terms are used in Princess Murders the Hero ... for the wearing of a sarong, the use of a kris, or the consumption of alak to be as natural to these characters as breathing air. I have lived and breathed the normalcy of Greco-Roman mythology, medieval armor and weaponry, in the literature I have consumed since my youth—an affliction undoubtedly common among many fantasy fans in the Philippines. It makes the occasional type or overwrought metaphor forgivable, and in many ways acceptable. You do not read Princess Murders the Hero with the expectation of “high literature”. You are reading for the epic tale of a badass woman who kicks ass alongside her merry and mismatched band.
Where PMtH truly thrives is in its punchy serial nature. The tradition of a serial novel is one of the perpetual cliffhanger, with each chapter being headed off by a stoppage in action; an invitation to wait in eager anticipation, popularized in the likes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Princess Murders the Hero understands this convention well. One chapter ends with an abrupt kidnapping, another on a promise of the ever-beloved training montage. Week on week, it is this pull to discover what happens next which drives the reader to bookmark this series and come back to see the resolution, only for more surprises to make themselves known. But this requires significant investment in the world at hand, and those unused to or impatient with an inconsistent release schedule may come back to new chapters with an incomplete or even absent knowledge of previous chapters.
There were times when reading the currently-available chapters of Princess Murders the Hero where I felt a discordance between its desire to entertain and its need to express the truths of the world. While it never reached the level of Hugo’s infamous asides on the architecture of the Notre Dame, the narration in Princess Murders the Hero never hesitates to remind us of how different the “nation” we call the Philippines could have been had its cultures flourished. Disparate and different islands led by datus and rajahs, where gold is plentiful and the people flourish. Of course, it does not pretend that they are ultimately “good”—no one is infallible, and those who fight cannot fight only to hurt, but must prepare ultimately to kill. There is no place for the universally all-loving hero—they would only end up on the end of a god-killing spear. You can feel the bloodlust and antagonism against the state of the world as is through Makapatag’s words, something that reaches beyond the violence inherent within the characters themselves. There is a colonized frustration that reverberates steadily against the star-swallowing and pale Hero of Prophecy.
It is difficult to read about Bakong, our titular princess, without thinking about the role of women in Filipino society and the greater world. She begins the story as a bargaining chip, a subject and pawn heading out into the world to be married off as an offering to stave off war. However, as the layers of the story unfold, we can see her gaining agency by shedding off the layers of father-assigned duty and asserting her strength in this world of violence; learning to rely not only on magic, but also on the strength of the spear and her own violent instincts; taking on the noble and terrible assignment of killing a hero. We see in her the echoes of women who have been pushed within the confines of Roman Catholicism, as this author has experienced in the Philippines, to be good and faithful wives as the be all and end all of existence, reclaiming an ancestry built upon blood. She asserts her place in the world through the merit of her existence and the aggression of her blade, in a genuinely cathartic way after chapters of vulnerability and pacifism on display.
An important note on Princess Murders the Hero is that there is a rare opportunity to play and explore the worlds of fantasy written by the author through a game system also created by the same author. Gubat Banwa, the sibling game to PMtH’s novel, provides the tools and setting for readers to create their own adventures. It’s an important point of context where one’s understanding of the terms, ideas, and even themes present within Princess Murders the Hero become much clearer within the context of the fuller game. But, more than that, it demonstrates Princess Murders the Hero not as the absolute peak of stories within the Sword Isles, but an example of what is possible—everything. You do not have to be a passive observer of adventure, but can even be an active participant in the stories on display.
Ultimately, despite my praise, Princess Murders the Hero is not a perfect piece. Sometimes the language used can come across as too effusive, over-reliant on metaphor and simile to get its point across. At times, its characters may come across less as characters than vehicles for action and diatribes to be enacted. But where it promises action it delivers often, and there is a beauty in the absolute style with which it is woven. (Not to mention, it’s free!) I consider it strongly worth your time to tune in for the next installment.