Book Review: KAIKEYI by Vaishnavi Patel

Title in white on orange next to shilloutette of a woman with heavy gold jewellery
Genre: Fantasy
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 5 stars
Series: standalone

Blurb:

Book cover for KAIKEYI: title in white on gold-jewellery laden silhouette of a woman on orange

“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 about the might and benevolence 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 favoured 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.

Blurb taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


Review:

I read KAIKEYI right as I was plunging into a (completely expected, given how busy I’d been for three months) reading slump. When I fall into one of those, usually every book is a drag to get through until I’ve un-stressed enough to enjoy reading, but I absolutely loved KAIKEYI.

I don’t know the Ramayana very well, just the vague strokes we got taught in school, but I loved seeing this feminist, female-centric take explore how the situation could go from loving family to one torn apart and at way through a human lens. There are divine and demonic workings at play, but ultimately the choices made in reaction to those workings are human. It made it feel so relatable because the bad decisions felt so understandable, entirely in line with the characterisation with logic that (while I might not agree with in some cases!) I could follow and see why that chain of decisions had happened.

This is also a book about women holding power in plain sight. They might start off in the background, but as they gain momentum and confidence, they take prominent public positions. And yes, they are up against a patriarchy, but they are not alone in fighting it. It’s not a “all men are bad” – their strongest ally is their husband – and I loved that nuance as it’s so often missing from feminist books.

And Kaikeyi is aroace! And not hated/reviled for it! Nor is it a reason she “goes bad” (not that I ever felt she “went bad” – I was firmly on her side every step of the way, unlike some tragedies where I think both sides made bad decisions.) No, her identity is just part of her, rather than part of the tragedy. She has a great platonic relationship with her husband, and that was probably my favourite part about the representation – the fact that she was portrayed as being in a great, supportive, happy relationship without there being attraction.

I also really enjoyed seeing the early years of the family who are happy being shown in so much detail. Happy, functional families are so rare in SFF, but most of the book is spent on Kaikeyi and the other two wives working together, loving all their sons indiscriminately, having a good relationship with their husband. It does then make the falling out that much sadder, but it was also just so nice to spend time with characters who are happy in their family too.

The world is so richly drawn. It’s based on Ancient India, and both landscape and daily life are given the same careful descriptions. Even without a map, even someone as topographically challenged as I can get a vague sense of where things are in relation to each other.

I will certainly be keeping an eye out for Vaishnavi Patel’s next books!

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