Space opera meets mythic fantasy in Sangu Mandanna’s young adult novel A Spark of White Fire, the first book in the Mahabharata-inspired Celestial Trilogy. This riveting, expertly paced tale features gods and goddesses, prophecies and curses, a divided royal family, and a sentient warship who is not particularly fond of the destruction and bloodshed for which she was crafted. I loved every moment of reading it and have already pre-ordered the sequel, A House of Rage and Sorrow (coming September 17 in the US and September 19 in the UK).

A Spark of White Fire is the story of Esmae Rey, a princess separated from her parents and twin brother shorty after her birth—a princess whose very existence was kept secret due to the curse that prompted her mother to send her away in the first place, though she herself learned the truth of her identity from the war goddess Amba. For seventeen years, Esmae lived in obscurity while her twin became renowned, beloved even, for his courage, honor, and accomplishments. She dreamed of one day reuniting with him, and after their uncle became king in her brother’s stead and exiled him, she envisioned herself joining him on a quest to take back his crown.

When a contest to win the god-forged warship Titania is announced, Esmae sees her opportunity to step out of the shadows into the light—and grasps it, despite Amba’s adamant warnings that taking this path leads to dire consequences.

After all the competitors have had their turn, Esmae comes forward and takes her own shot, besting everyone—including her brother, who had been the clear winner before she threw the competition into chaos. Esmae reveals that she is a part of the Rey family in a private meeting with the king running the competition, his son, her two brothers, and her cousin, creating a quandary about whether or not the prize goes to the person registered in the contest who did best or the one who actually did best. The king resolves this by asking the Titania which twin she’d prefer to accompany, and the ship chooses Esmae, knowing they are much alike: though Esmae is a capable warrior, she is not one who relishes blood and glory.

Esmae accepts her uncle’s invitation to rejoin that part of her family so she can gather information for her brother’s cause, but she’s surprised by how genuinely welcoming they are to her—and the more she gets to know them personally, the more she realizes her family members and their differences are not as black and white as she’d once believed.

A Spark of White Fire captivated me immediately with its opening paragraphs describing the imminent competition for Titania and the players involved. Esmae has a compelling voice as she describes the situation in just enough detail to make it intriguing without overloading the reader with too much information at once, adding a tad of dramatic flair as she introduces those involved and compares it to a strategic game—and also a bit about her character, since she’s partial to tactics and studying. This is one of those novels that I thought perfectly set up what can be expected from the rest of the book since it maintains this strong narrative and pacing from start to finish. I was never once bored; the plot and action are well balanced with Esmae’s thoughts and character interactions throughout, making every single scene thoroughly immersive.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fond of books in which gods and goddesses meddle in the lives of mortals, and this has plenty of those with deities who choose favorites and decide to reward those who please them—which can include the gods’ favorites cursing people who wrong them, leading to situations that seem as though they may be self-fulfilling prophecies. I’ve not read the Mahabharata (though I now want to find a translation to read!) so I can’t speak for how the inspirations work within this story, but I thought that giving these celestial beings a larger playground by setting it in space made it more epic than if they had been confined to a single world. (But then, I do tend to be fond of stories that combine space opera with myth as well.)

Most of all, I loved Esmae for her strengths and understandable weaknesses—and I loved that she’s a character who does not remain stagnant at the end of her journey, one who is affected by events in a way that changes her attitude and worldview. Esmae has spent so long dreaming and wishing that she doesn’t always see her surroundings clearly, and her compassion and loyalty are often clouded by her preconceptions. That’s not to say she’s not capable of readjusting her mindset based on evidence, because she does to some extent (even if she does sometimes overlook the obvious for a while), but she also makes tragic mistakes because of misguided idealistic beliefs.

I appreciated that none of the characters Esmae knew of before meeting them for the first time were exactly like she expected them to be, and I especially enjoyed reading about her cousin Max—the so-called jealous prince who certainly had some insecurities but was also insightful and thoughtful. Besides Esmae and Max, there were two others I found especially wonderful: Esmae’s great-grandmother, a powerful political player; and her mentor, a legendary fighter who will neither suffer nor forgive dishonesty but can still have affection for the person who wronged him.

Although I didn’t think most of the characters were simply “good” or “bad,” I did think that the novel’s biggest weaknesses are that they could have shown a bit more depth and there are parts that could have been built with more subtlety. For instance, Esmae’s said to be a good tactician and is apparently rather good at strategy games, but there’s not much emphasis on her utilizing this knowledge (although, given how this book ends, there may be more reason for her to use it in the sequel!). And perhaps this is due to the original source material I have not read, but there is one revelation that’s been so heavily hinted at that I almost hope it turns out not to be true despite being unable to see how it could possibly be otherwise.

However, those are minor quibbles considering how thoroughly engrossing I found this book, and I mainly point them out to explain why I’m not giving it a higher rating. A Spark of White Fire is one of the most engaging, exciting, fun novels I’ve read this year, and I can hardly wait to discover what Esmae unleashes in A House of Rage and Sorrow.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a birthday present selected from books on my wish list!