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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Aparna Verma! She is the author of the first book in The Ravence Trilogy, The Boy with Fire, which is described as “a glorious yet brutal tour-de-force debut that grapples with the power and manipulation of myth in an Indian-inspired epic fantasy.” Leading up to its release last year, she wrote about it on Goodreads, calling it “a magical conglomeration of Dune, Hindu mythology, Game of Thrones, and ATLA.”

Cover of The Boy with Fire by Aparna Verma

The Need for Angry, Ruthless Women in Adult SFF
By: Aparna Verma

When I first came across Maa Kali, I thought she was more a demon than a goddess.

A garland of skulls adorned her neck. Her skin was pitch-black like darkness itself. In the picture book where I first saw her, Maa Kali stood on the body of a demon, one hand gripping its decapitated head, the other wielding a bloody sword. Her eyes bulged and her red tongue flared out of her mouth, vicious like a snake.

I was terrified.

Terrified, but intrigued.

Maa Kali, as fearsome as she seems, is one of the highly revered goddesses in Hinduism. During Navratri, a nine-day festival dedicated to Ma Durga (another manifestation of Maa Kali), Hindus pray to the goddess. She is believed to be the goddess of time, destruction, and death. She destroys the ego, thus allowing one to attain moksha, or freedom from the endless, tiresome cycle of reincarnation. She is both power and forgiveness.

And she’s a fierce warrior.

According to the Devi Mahatmyam, a Hindu philosophical text, Maa Kali saved the world, and the gods, by defeating the demon Mahishasura. Her rage, her bloodthirst, though terrifying, allowed the world to flourish. Why then is she so misunderstood?

I’ve come to realize that when ferocious women arise in history, when they try to claim power or upset the status quo through violence, they’re often seen as mad. Begum Hazrat Mahal, a queen who led an army against the British, was described to have a “savage disposition.” Rani Laxmi Bhai, one of the greatest freedom fighters of Indian history, was diminished by a British officer to be an “ardent, daring, licentious woman.”

In other words, a whore.

But Maa Kali and these freedom fighters are more than bloodthirsty warriors or mad women.

They’re guardians.

They all harbor a deep passion to protect the ones they love.

When I began writing The Boy with Fire, I could not forget Maa Kali or these freedom fighters. Their violence, their anger, was understandable. More importantly, it was useful. 

Elena Aadya Ravence, the female protagonist of my story, puts her anger to use. She bends fire to wreak havoc on her enemies. She destroys to protect her kingdom. Her male counterparts believe her to be mad, like Maa Kali, like Rani Laxmi Bhai, like Begum Hazrat Mahal, but her violence is exacting. Precise. Yes, she is full of grief. Yes, she is full of fury. But like the women and goddess who inspired her, Elena Aadya Ravence wields her anger as a weapon. She is not a Dany Targaryen. She is a guardian of a kingdom, and she will do anything to protect it.

But Maa Kali’s influence in my story did not end with just Elena. When Maa Kali battled against Mahishasura and his asuras, she summoned an army of female warriors: the chandikas. The chandikas were fierce, powerful, and, above all, loyal.

The Yumi in The Boy with Fire are a bit like the chandikas. A race of fierce warriors, the Yumi often serve as soldiers in the kingdoms of Sayon. The men are healers, but the women are the fighters. Tall, lithe, and quick, the female Yumi are blessed with long hair that can instantly sharpen into hundreds of shards. Think porcupine. Think Medusa, except instead of snakes, you have daggers. With their hair, the Yumi can cut through metal and flesh. As my copy editor noted, it’s quite useful.

Elena’s closest friend, Ferma, is a Yumi. Together, Elena and Ferma serve as an embodiment of Maa Kali and her chandikas. They are both women who trained to become protectors. Fueled by grief and fury, they seek to create a world of peace, even if that peace may not be for themselves.

The Boy with Fire is a story of sin, sacrifice, and power. It pits characters of questionable morals against each other. But more importantly, it depicts women who are ruthless yet strategic. Flawed, but honorable. They are not Dany Targaryens who succumb to madness simply because they became too powerful.

I’m over that kind of storytelling.

It’s time we have angry, violent women in adult SFF who aren’t depicted as mad killers, but as valiant guardians, like Maa Kali, Rani Laxmi Bhai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and all the unrecorded women of history who picked up the sword to protect the ones they love. I hope that when readers pick up The Boy with Fire, they’ll see Elena and Ferma as protectors. Violent and flawed, but in the end, women who dared.

Photo of Aparna Verma Aparna Verma was born in India and immigrated to the United States when she was two-years-old. She graduated from Stanford University with Honors in the Arts and a B.A. in English. The Boy with Fire is her first novel.

When she is not writing, Aparna likes to ride horses, dance to Bollywood music, and find old cafes to read myths about forgotten worlds. You can connect with Aparna on Twitter and Instagram at @spirited_gal.