Book Review

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Genre | Fantasy
Page #s | 478
Publishing Date | April 2022

“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 worthy. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to the marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.

Desperate for independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With it, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen.

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.

Goodreads

I love mythological retellings, and Kaikeyi was a very accessible and highly engaging reimagining of the Hindu epic Ramayana from the perspective of Rama’s villainous mother. Spoilers! When you see a story from a woman’s point of view, she’s a lot less villainous!

In this decades-spanning novel, we follow the titular Kaikeyi as she navigates court life, first as a girl who is twin to the future king, then as a woman who is third wife to another king. She is consistently given power in accordance with her wisdom and intelligence, only to have the power taken away on a whim simply because she’s a woman. It’s a frustratingly realistic portrayal of the limits of female power within patriarchal systems.

In addition to the politics, there is a lot of magic! Kaikeyi learns at a young age how to enter the Binding Plane, a place where she can see the threads that tie people together. She learns to influence those ties for her own good as well as the good of others. This is a very cool bit of magic, but it is annoyingly unexamined from a moralistic viewpoint. Later in the book she discovers someone else has this same power, and she is appalled a the way it is used without ever once acknowledging the similarities to her own habits of manipulation.

Some of the other things I loved in this book was the depiction of the relationship between Kaikeyi and her husband’s other two wives. There is never a whiff of jealousy between them when it comes to their relationship to their husband or their role in the hierarchy. It was incredibly satisfying to read about a polygamous relationship of support without the assumption of drama.

I am also a sucker for stories of people fighting against fate. Although I was unfamiliar with the story of the Ramayana, it was clear that terrible things were going to happen, if not for the reasons recorded in the original myths. Watching Kaikeyi desperately try to avoid disaster, only to cause it, was classic storytelling at its best. What elevates the experience is Patel’s merging of this classic device with modern storytelling. Although Kaikeyi cannot defy her fate, we the readers are invited to question the goodness of the gods, as well as whether the tragic fate of a royal household ought to be the focus of the story at all.

What Makes This Book Queer?

Kaikeyi is consistently described as asexual and aromantic. She is married off to a king at the age of 19, and although she admires him as a friend and partner, she never loves or desires him, nor anyone else. Her role as a wife who will bear children to a king despite being asexual nicely aligns with the book’s themes regarding women without choice fighting for autonomy and control of their lives.

Who Do I Recommend This Book To?

Kaikeyi is the perfect book to give to fans of mythological retellings who grew up on Percy Jackson and want to bite into something with a little more literary depth.

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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