Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi PatelKaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, mythology, retellings
Pages: 496
Length: 17 hours, 22 minutes
Published by Redhook on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“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 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.
A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi 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.

My Review:

Kaikeyi is a story that gave me mixed feelings on top of my mixed feelings, much as the character of Kaikeyi herself has inspired multiple interpretations of her story and her character in the centuries since the Ramayana, one of the two important legends of Hinduism, was first written – or amassed – or compiled – or all of the above – sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.E.

The closest Western parallel is probably the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in age, size and in the scope of their importance to the canon of literature.

And, like the recent spate of modernized retellings of Homer’s famous tales such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, as well as Claire North’s upcoming Ithaca, the Ramayana, particularly the story of the reviled Kaikeyi, was ripe for a contemporary retelling.

Which is just what Kaikeyi is, an account of Queen Kaikeyi’s life from her early childhood to the terrible events that made her so despised in the Ramayana. But told from Kaikeyi’s own first-person point of view, we’re able to see the famous story in which she plays such an infamous part told from a feminist perspective rather than the patriarchal, male-centric version that was written by the all-male Sages who denigrated her during her life and controlled her narrative after her death.

While the Ramayana itself is the epic history of Kaikeyi’s son Rama, a reincarnation of Vishnu, in Kaikeyi’s part of that story we are at the end, where she poisons the mind of her husband King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, persuading him to exile Rama from the kingdom he is supposed to rule, for 14 long, bitter years. But that event – and the worse things that follow after it, are the last part of Kaikeyi’s story when it is told from her own perspective.

For her, the story begins at the beginning, the tale of a young woman, the only princess of Kekaya, with eight younger brothers and a disapproving father, the king who exiled her mother as a result of machinations in his own court.

Kekaya is a warlike kingdom, and Kaikeyi, in spite of her gender, learns many of the arts of war under the tutelage of her twin brother. But for all her agency and independence, she is forced to obey when her father marries her off to the King of Ayodhya, as Ayodhya is a larger, more prosperous country that Kekaya cannot afford to anger.

It is as one of the three Queens of Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finds both her purpose and her eventual downfall – at least according to the legends.

What we have in this fictionalized version of her life is the story of a strong woman who was forsaken by her gods for acts she had not yet committed, who began her rise with a little magic and less agency, but who eventually managed to carve herself a place at her husband’s side in war and in the highest councils of their kingdom in peace.

And who managed – in spite of the dire pronouncements of the Sages who denounced her as angering the gods by not staying in her “woman’s place” – to raise the standard of living and responsibility for many of the women of her kingdom.

Until it all went straight to something like hell – right along with damnation.

Escape Rating B: I said at the top that my mixed feelings had mixed feelings about this story. There were points where it seemed like a fairly straightforward feminist interpretation, where the conservative forces of the patriarchy who claimed they were speaking for the gods were just part of the cycle of men making god in their own image. In other words they wanted to maintain the status quo that kept them in power and women less than the dust under their feet by claiming that was what the gods wanted.

But then there are actual gods in this story who actually claim that those men are, in fact, speaking for their divine selves. Which does undercut some of that interpretation.

And on my rather confused other hand, as Rama and his brothers grow up, it’s clear, at least from Kaikeyi’s point of view, that knowing he was the avatar of a god from such a young age had done Rama absolutely no favors whatsoever. That he’s a puppet of divine forces beyond his control or understanding – and that he is just as much a pawn of men who get their hooks into him when he is young and corrupt him to their purposes – one of which is to strike Kaikeyi down through their control of her son.

In other words, these facets of the story read like an entirely different saying about the gods, the one that goes “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” variations of which go all the way back to Sophocles’ play Antigone – which was also written sometime in the 4th century B.C.E.

Because this is Kaikeyi’s story rather than Rama’s, this is not a story about a great man fighting great battles against great evil and having great adventures. In many ways it’s a much quieter story than that as Kaikeyi reaches maturity in Ayodhya, learns how to control her own magic, and makes changes in the ways that all women are treated in her adopted country.

But this is also a story that is effectively forced to serve two masters. On the one hand, it hits many of the same beats as epic fantasy. The use of magic, deities meddling in the affairs of their worshippers, the battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Howsomever, as the retelling of a foundational document in religions that have millions of adherents to this very day, the story must still conform to the major plot points of the epic poem it derives from. Kaikeyi the character can explain, to herself and to the reader, why events are remembered and recorded as they eventually were – but she can’t change the outcome no matter how much the reader might want her to or even expect her to because this does read much like epic fantasy.

Still, what makes Kaikeyi’s story so interesting is the way that she works through relationships, aided by her magic, to garner influence and power to help the women of her kingdom. One of the unusual facets of her story is that Kaikeyi herself is both Ace and Aromantic in this interpretation. Whatever her husband feels for her, this is not a romance. She comes to see him as a dear friend and a partner, but she has no romantic or sexual interest in him or anyone else in her life. She does not use ‘feminine wiles’ or seduction to make her point or to gather followers. It’s always fascinating to see a woman in a historical-type story that does not ever play those obvious tropes.

But as much as I found Kaikeyi’s campaign for increased women’s rights in general and greater agency and authority for herself in particular, the last quarter of the story fell flat for me. At that point, the bitter ending is coming fast, and Kaikeyi spends a great deal of time and energy castigating herself because she didn’t see it coming and can’t seem to stop the destruction that cannot be turned aside. She blames herself for absolutely everything that happens to a degree that just bogs down a whole chunk of chapters leading to the ending.

So I loved the first three quarters and was ready to throw the thing across the room in the long, drawn-out, “it’s all my fault, I’m to blame for everything” final quarter.

June is Audiobook Month and I listened to Kaikeyi rather than reading the text – which would have made throwing it across the room not just difficult but downright dangerous as I was generally driving while listening. And I’d hate to throw my iPhone out of the window. Seriously.

One of the reasons I kept going even when the story hit that big slough of despond at the end was because I was listening rather than reading. Stories that are in the first-person-perspective, as Kaikeyi is, lend themselves particularly well to audio when the narrator’s voice matches the character, as was certainly the case here. While I had mixed feelings about the story she was telling, the audio teller of the tale was excellent.

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca MayWild and Wicked Things by Francesca May
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, historical fantasy, historical fiction, paranormal
Pages: 432
Published by Redhook on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the aftermath of World War I, a naive woman is swept into a glittering world filled with dark magic, romance, and murder in this lush and decadent debut.
On Crow Island, people whisper, real magic lurks just below the surface. 
Neither real magic nor faux magic interests Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s only on the island to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. 
Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the biggest one may be her enigmatic new neighbor. 
Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of the island's extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where the boundaries of wickedness are tested, and the cost of illicit magic might be death.

My Review:

The wild and wicked things of Wild and Wicked Things weren’t quite like anything I was expecting.

That may be because both “wild” and “wicked” are in the eyes of the beholder. And there seems to be plenty of both to behold on Crow Island, somewhere mythical and magical just off the coast of England.

Part of the fascination for me in this story was the setup. This is a post-World War I story, but the variation of the Great War that this story is post of isn’t quite the one we know. Because in this version of history, the gas that killed so many in the trenches wasn’t mustard gas.

It was magic. A magic that transformed the soldiers it touched into supersoldiers with no conscience, no morals, no scruples and no fear of death. It’s only hinted at, but it seems as if it was worse than that. It certainly left behind a version of “shell shock” or PTSD that gave the survivors even more regrets and worse nightmares than they suffered in our real history. Which is definitely saying something.

But the war is over. Politically, the powers-that-be that embraced witchcraft when they needed it to prosecute the terrible war are now backing away. Magic has fallen from favor – and from legality – and faces a Prohibition that will probably be just as effective as the real Prohibition was in U.S. history. Meaning not at all.

Still, the “Lost Generation” has even more they want to forget about than in real history. And one of the places they come to do that forgetting – at least among the rich and glittering – is Crow Island, where magic has seeped into the blood and bones of the place and its people.

Annie has come to Crow Island to pack up the estate of a man she never knew. Her absent father. She’s been warned all her life against magic and has no plans to get caught up in the mystery and glamour of the island. But as that old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men (and women) often go astray.

Especially as her best friend, Bea, ran away to Crow Island and married there. Annie feels compelled to find out what happened to the girl she grew up with. And the house that is just down the beach from her rented cottages shines so brightly in the night that she can’t resist exploring, no matter how many times she’s already been warned to stay away from magic in general, and from the residents of Cross House in particular.

Because they practice magic. Also sin, debauchery and perhaps a bit of drug dealing along with the fortune telling. But definitely magic – which is to be avoided at all costs.

But for once in her life as a timid little mouse, Annie doesn’t listen to all those cautioning voices. She finds herself caught in Emmeline Delacroix’ glamorous and glittering web. Only for Emmeline to discover that she has landed a much bigger fish than she expected, and that naïve, innocent Annie has caught her as well.

Or the magic has caught them both.

Escape Rating A-: The lesson of Wild and Wicked Things is to be very, very careful what you wish for, because you might get it at a cost that is not fully revealed until it is much, much too late. Along with a reminder that some gifts most certainly do come at way too high a price.

Initially, the person who got what they wished for was Annie’s friend Bea. But Bea has refused to pay the price for her wish, is refusing to acknowledge that it was her wish in the first place, and seems to be perfectly willing to let Emmeline Delacroix pay the price for it – even if that price is Emmeline’s own life.

Then again, one of the things we learn over the course of the story is that Bea is a user and a bitch to pretty much everyone. As we learn more about Annie and Bea’s shared girlhood, and Bea’s involvement with Emmeline and Cross House, we lose pretty much any sympathy for her and end up wondering why Annie put up with her for so long or why Emmeline didn’t see right through her.

But Bea is just the catalyst for everything that happens and that she refuses to accept any responsibility for. The story is Annie’s. It’s Annie’s story of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Of coming into her own and admitting who she really is.

In a way, it’s one of those things that still felt like a mystery at the end. Was Annie a mouse because that was her nature, or was Annie a mouse because so much of her true nature was suppressed? We never do find out, although there are hints.

As Annie gets herself involved in all the things she’s not supposed to be involved in, like magic, witchcraft, murder, raising the dead and falling in love with Emmeline, she breaks out of the straightjacket her life has been contained in. It is, very much on the one hand, the making of her.

And on the other, thinking that raising the dead is a good idea that will solve all the problems they are all already in feels like seriously the wrong way to go about things. As the situation proves.

Considering the period in which this is set, it has a surprisingly gothic feel to it. Cross House has a mind of its own, and it’s a brooding one filled with darkness and secrets. The story also reminds me a lot of Amanda Quick’s Burning Cove series (start with The Girl Who Knew Too Much), with the way that the paranormal has been turned so completely dark.

War is dangerous. Witchcraft is dangerous. Love is dangerous. Mix them together and it’s all too easy to end up with a whole big ball of explosive wrong.

However, following along with Annie as she figures out all of the above may not exactly be “right” (for select definitions thereof) but it is absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance SayersThe Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, magical realism
Pages: 448
Published by Redhook on March 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family's strange and magical circus, it's the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.
Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother's journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In The Ladies of the Secret Circus, the road FROM hell is paved with exactly the same stuff.

It all begins with a mystery, even if that mystery is not the one that anyone in tiny Kerrigan Falls, Virginia believes that it is.

But then, nothing about this story turns out to be exactly what people believe it is, especially not Le Cirque Secret and its mysterious proprietor.

Lara Barnes thinks the story begins with the disappearance of her fiancé on the morning of their wedding. But Todd’s abandoned car isn’t the beginning of the story – not even for Lara.

Because once upon a time, when Lara was a little girl, she received a pair of mysterious visitors. The daemon Althacazar and his daughter Cecile. They’ve come to see if Lara might be the one. The one to fix the mistakes that Althacazar made, not out of evil in spite of his position as a powerful prince of Hell, but out of a love that should never have been.

A love that gave birth to Cecile, her sister Esme, and the magical, mysterious, compelling Le Cirque Secret amid the glitter and glamour of Jazz Age Paris. A love that eventually gave birth to Lara herself, and to the hatred and obsession that has followed her, her family, and even the circus itself.

A hate that has finally come to get her – unless she manages to get it first.

Escape Rating A+: This story flies on a trapeze over the haunted crossroads where timeslip fiction turns into historical fiction, and the paranormal bleeds into dark fantasy, with hellhounds patrolling on all sides.

It’s a story about love, obsession and daemons. And it’s a story about a father trying to do his best for his daughters and failing miserably, even though he’s one of the great princes of Hell.

Part of what’s so fascinating about The Ladies of the Secret Circus is just how many different kinds of stories it manages to tell – all at the same time!

There’s the mystery of the disappearance, which turns into the mysteries of the disappearances, plural. There’s the magical realism bit about Lara’s, and her mother Audrey’s, ability to do magic. Which morphs into the big scary paranormal horror-adjacent element of the Le Cirque Secret, its condemned performers and its mysterious, daemonic owner and master of ceremonies.

Then there’s the timeslip bits, where artifacts from 1920s Paris seem to slip through to 2005 Virginia, and where Lara translates what turns out to be her great-grandmother’s diary, and suddenly we’re there in Jazz Age Paris watching the tragedy unfold.

(This bit that took me way back to a book I read nearly ten years ago, The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King. They both have that same sense of everything winding down and the crash coming even though they are different crashes.)

And the story just keeps spinning, like Cecile’s circus act, floating in mid air with magic and no net whatsoever. Until it all falls back into the present, and we – and Lara – finally discover what’s really been going on all along.

That there was a price to be paid for the magic, and for Althacazar’s original mistake so long ago. A price that Lara believes she’s going to have to pay. And so she does, just not in the way that she originally thought. A price that she discovers is much, much too high.

But that’s so often true when it comes to Althacazar. His gifts – and his mistakes – always cost more than anyone planned on. Including himself.

Readers who love stories where all the genres are bent to the point that they whirl around faster than the eye can see are going to love this book. And be captivated by the spell of Le Cirque Secret.