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Book Description:

A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is the story of the infamous queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana. It is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.

So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.

Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.

But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak—and what legacy she intends to leave behind.

Kaikeyi, Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, is a reimagining of the story of the titular queen, who exiled the hero Rama in the Indian epic the Ramayana. The author described it as “a ‘what-if’ style alternative rather than a faithful retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayana from someone else’s perspective” on Goodreads, and there is an author’s note at the beginning of the novel discussing some of the changes she made. In this, she shared how the idea grew from a minor disagreement between her grandmother and mother when the latter said that Kaikeyi actually helped Rama fulfill his destiny by sending him away. This conversation led her to look for literature focusing on the queen’s perspective, and she wrote this novel when she couldn’t find these stories, saying she “wanted to give Kaikeyi a chance to explain her actions and explore what might have caused a celebrated warrior and beloved queen to tear her family apart.”

As such, this standalone novel is a first-person account of Kaikeyi’s story covering her life from childhood through the immediate aftermath of her choice to exile one of her adult sons. It details how she learned at a young age just how unfair the world is to women and girls, from the banishment of her own mother to the differences between how she and her twin brother were treated. It shows how alone she felt as the only girl in a family with eight children, as one whose prayers went unanswered (despite being a princess, who she’d been taught was someone the gods always answered), and how she turned to the scrolls in the library and discovered a forgotten magical art: the Binding Plane, which allowed her to see her bonds with people and influence them. It tells of her convincing her twin to teach her to fight so she can better protect herself, and then learning to wield a weapon and drive a war chariot.

These early experiences shaped her into the woman she became: one who made a place for herself in a world in which she didn’t fit, one who strove to make the world a better and more just place for other women, and eventually, one who exiled someone she loved.

Although I’m not that familiar with the Ramayana, I was swept away from the very first page of Kaikeyi. (I had actually been considering reading a version of the Ramayana that I have beforehand, but I looked at Kaikeyi‘s opening and just had to keep reading.) The prettily written narrative with its references to the heartbreak to come drew me in immediately, and Kaikeyi’s a sympathetic protagonist with her all-too-palpable rising anger at patriarchy. I loved her character, a remarkable and persistent person who does her best and tries to make the world a better place yet one who is also imperfect. She falters at times, makes mistakes, and has regrets. She isn’t always aware of her privilege, and she seems more concerned with the potential negative outcomes of using the Binding Plane than the fact that she’s using magic to manipulate people. (When I first finished this, I wanted to see her hypocrisy related to the latter explored a bit more, but after reflecting on it, I appreciate that the author allowed Kaikeyi to just tell her story and exist as someone who isn’t always self-aware. As she relates her narrative, she doesn’t always examine herself or come to realize she was in the wrong, and that makes her all the more real.)

Kaikeyi’s relationships with others are another highlight of the novel, especially those with her twin brother and the family she marries into. She grows up close to her barely-younger sibling, but their connection increasingly simmers with tension and Kaikeyi comes to realize just how much more her brother is valued for being a boy. To make matters worse, her twin is oblivious to how differently the two of them are treated, and later, he supports their father’s wishes for her to marry a king after she’d been promised there would be more time before she had to wed.

As portrayed in this novel, Kaikeyi is an aroace woman who never expresses any interest in romantic relationships, and she wanted to put off marriage as long as possible. She also initially resisted the match with her husband since she expected to be of no consequence as his third wife, but she agreed to the marriage when he promised that her son, should she have one, would be the next king. Though Kaikeyi does not fall in love with her husband, she does come to consider him a dear friend after gaining his respect in battle, and she comes to see his other two wives as sisters. Together, the three queens create the Women’s Council, allowing the people to come to them with their problems and giving more of a voice to the women in their kingdom. (And this is also influenced by Manthara, Kaikeyi’s servant, who was like a mother to her and showed her some of the problems other women faced.)

Though I found Kaikeyi’s entire story compelling, I did prefer the first half or so focusing on her childhood and the earlier parts of her time as a queen, wife, and mother. There are still wonderful scenes later in her story, such as some epic moments interspersed throughout and her reunions with various family members, but I did find it less engaging, especially since I have some reservations about how she came to exile Rama. Part of this is because of my personal preference for complexity that blurs the line between who’s right and who’s wrong, but I also felt that fleshing certain aspects out a bit more would have made it stronger. Spoilers related to this are below (and should be hidden if you’re reading this in a web browser).

However, that wasn’t a huge hindrance to my enjoyment of this novel, and I still think Kaikeyi is a wonderful book. I just didn’t end up loving it quite as much as I expected when I was partway through it. (Of course, I have not read or studied the Ramayana; I’ve only read about it on the internet and read a couple of stories from it in a book on mythology. It’s entirely possible there is additional context I’m missing.)

Kaikeyi is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I appreciated its focus on a compassionate but flawed heroine determined to carve a place for herself in a society that didn’t want her to be her true self as a woman with ambition: a queen and a warrior, a mother and a political adviser, an advocate for other women, and ultimately, someone who had a profound impact. It’s a fantastic debut—from the protagonist’s story and voice to the depth of her familial relationships to the more epic scenes involving gods and other supernatural beings—and I’m eagerly anticipating Vaishnavi Patel’s next novel.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Kaikeyi

Read “Divorcing the Evil Stepmother” by Vaishnavi Patel from Women in SF&F Month 2022