Tag Archives: Hindu

Review for A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

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Note: This book is the sequel to The Star-Touched Queen, which I reviewed here. The book can stand alone, but I still recommend reading The Star-Touched Queen first.

My Summary: Gauri has been exiled from Bharata and thrown into the hands of her rival and enemy kingdom, Ujijain, by her own brother. Vikram is the heir to the Ujijain throne and seeks legitimacy and validation from people who scorn his common background. For the sake of claiming their respective thrones, they set aside their enmity and enter the Tournament of Wishes together. Danger looms on all sides as they go through grueling trials to win the prize of a wish, but the real danger may be the prize itself because as they say, you should be careful what you wish for.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: mentions/discussion of transphobia

My word for The Star-Touched Queen was “gorgeous,” and the word for this sequel is “swoon-worthy.” Roshani Chokshi further builds upon her world with more breathtaking descriptions and whirlwind adventures in a previously unexplored realm, Alaka. Alaka is a kingdom in the Otherworld and the home of Kubera, the Lord of Treasures and guardian of the North.

As with the first book, we have plenty of riddles, puzzles, and things that are not quite what they appear to be in A Crown of Wishes. Add capricious immortals to the picture, and you never quite know what to expect. The whole story is a mystery gift waiting to be unwrapped and unboxed, brimming with magic and beauty.

A Crown of Wishes is more action-packed than its predecessor, but the narrative doesn’t lose sight of the heart of the story, which lies in the emotional and psychological worlds of its main characters, Gauri and Vikram. Beneath the veneer of ambition and confidence lie regrets, doubts, deeply human vulnerabilities.

And of course, we have the romance of the first book but with a different dynamic. Gauri and Vikram make a very entertaining duo. Gauri is very much “fight first, ask questions later” while Vikram is much more of an academic and subtle type who will scope things out and plot accordingly. Gauri is cynical and heavily guarded whereas Vikram is a person of starry-eyed idealism and faith, making them very much an “opposites attract” couple.

If you want slow-burn, this is slow-burn but with endless bickering to fill the space. Their barbed exchanges are full of humor and wit and are in some cases laugh-out-loud hilarious. Of course, it’s not all jokes and banter; they have more serious moments of reciprocal disclosure and deeper bonding to give their dynamic substance. But the bickering is definitely a highlight. The alternating narrative viewpoints (first-person for Gauri, third-person for Vikram) help bring the two and their dynamic to life.

This book brings back familiar faces (my favorite included!) and introduces some new characters as well. Chief among these new characters is the curious and earnest Aasha, who is a secondary viewpoint character in addition to Gauri and Vikram. She is the youngest of a group of sister courtesans who feed on desire and whose touch is poison (what a concept). All she wants is to experience being human, something that was denied her when she was turned into a vishakanya from a mortal at a young age. She is the definition of a precious cinnamon roll, and you can’t help but love her and wish the best for her. On the plus side, she’s most likely bisexual based on a statement she made. I have been starved for bisexual representation in historical fantasy, so Aasha is a welcome addition to the small circle of bi girls in fantasy.

Between all of the things I’ve mentioned, A Crown of Wishes was a jewel of a read. However, there was one thing that bothered me in the story. In one scene, Vikram recalls a time when he was fifteen and tried to sneak into the harem of his father’s court by dressing as a courtesan. He managed to pass as a woman and was accosted by a womanizing palace guard as a result, forcing him to reveal his disguise. Although I’m down for guys looking great in drag, I didn’t like the way it was played off for humor. The context of his crossdressing is very reminiscent, however unintentionally, of the transphobic rhetoric directed against trans women about them supposedly being “predatory men who dress as women to gain access to women’s spaces.” There was also a line later on where Vikram says, “I considered wearing your (Gauri’s) outfit, but chest hair lacks certain feminine charms.” Rather than affirming gender nonconformity, these bits reinforced the stigma against it, and the book would have been better off without them.

Recommendation: Recommended with warnings for incidental transphobia.

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Review for The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

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My Summary: Maya’s horoscope promises death and destruction with her marriage. Her father marries her off for political convenience, and through a strange twist of events, she is wed to Amar, king of Akaran. This marriage brings both passion and secrets, and unraveling those secrets becomes vital to Maya’s survival and the fate of all the realms.

Review:

If I were to pick one word to describe this book, I’d have to say “gorgeous.” The descriptions are so vivid and textured that they practically leap off the page at you. I wish I had this level of command over language.

Some people might find the story to be a bit slow, but personally, I liked that I got to immerse myself in the details and rhythms and tucked-away corners of Maya’s world. I hate seeing wasted potential when it comes to worldbuilding in fantasy, and The Star-Touched Queen delivers the amount of substance I want. And here, the worldbuilding isn’t just a superficial info dump to dazzle for a moment; it is interwoven with Maya and Amar’s evolving relationship, it creates suspense and tension through the mysteries and secrets that emerge, and it plays a part in Maya’s character development as she explores not only physical spaces but also her inner psychological landscape.

I think the thing that really captivated me about this story was that beyond the “saving the realms” arc, the heart of the narrative is actually about self-discovery and the struggle to find agency when your environment is restrictive. Interpretation and perspective are key elements in Maya’s growth as she is pushing the boundaries of what she can be. Even though there are some external constraints placed upon us, a lot of our limits are also self-imposed, and this story definitely tackles that theme.

Another thing that stood out to me is Maya’s ambition. In a society where girls are taught to not reach too high or too far, it’s important to have stories that challenge that, that say, be ambitious, dare to aim high, channel the power you have. Watching Maya make decisions explicitly based on ambition was satisfying and encouraging to me as someone who has held myself back out of self-doubt or internalized beliefs that I shouldn’t take up too much space or want too much.

If you’re tired of YA where girls are constantly being saved by guys, then this is your book. Maya is truly the heroine of her own story. Even when confronted by obstacles, she refuses to back down and accept defeat. Her power and her growth shine through in the last one-third of the story in particular, building up to one hell of an ending.

The supporting characters don’t steal the spotlight at the expense of the main character, but they’re still memorable and lovable in their own ways. Gupta is a nerd in the classic sense–well-read, prone to gushing about random subjects that capture his interest, not that great with social niceties–and I love that about him because it’s like seeing a fictional version of myself. That said, my absolute favorite supporting character is Kamala, who is a talking, flesh-eating horse. Yes, you read that correctly. Read the book and you’ll understand why she is so great.

Personally, one of the things I loved about this book was the incorporation of reincarnation into the story. I grew up with a lot of stories where reincarnation is involved since it’s part of Taiwanese and Chinese religious and spiritual beliefs, so it was nice to see a story make use of that familiar concept. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for romances that involve reincarnation because it opens up so many more possibilities.

Knowing that A Crown of Wishes follows as a sequel and companion, I feel like The Star-Touched Queen did a great job of laying the foundation for the second book. The pieces I got were just enough to tease and pique my interest in what will happen to Gauri and Vikram. Thankfully, I have the ARC of A Crown of Wishes in hand ready to be devoured, otherwise I’d be with the rest of the world crying for March 28th!

Nothing stood out to me as majorly problematic, but there was one place where Maya said that maybe her body was too straight and boyish to be attractive to Amar, which can be read as internalized misogyny but is also cisnormative since it reinforces the idea that certain body types/shapes should correspond to certain genders. Even as YA is pushing the boundaries of gender roles, it would be nice to see more critical takes on the gendering of bodies and beauty standards.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended to fantasy lovers who want to be swept away.

Review for Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi

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Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: At age eleven, Kokila makes a decision to flee the marriage she was forced into and take up residence at Tella Meda, an ashram that offers refuge for people with no place left to turn to. There, she becomes a part of an ever-evolving family of women whose lives are bound together by their status as outcasts.

Review:

I have very conflicting feelings about this book. The women in it are all deeply flawed characters, which isn’t an issue, but some of their supposed flaws are only considered flaws by very sexist, colorist, ableist, etc. standards of evaluating women’s worth. Some of it is merely a reflection of the society they live in, but at times even the narrative itself endorses these kinds of judgments.

But beyond the vicious name-calling of “wh*re,” “b*tch,” and “sl*t,” you get the stories of complex women who are doing what they can to survive in a society that devalues women. Their flaws do not mean they are not sympathetic characters.

There is Kokila, who shuns the life of a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law without a full understanding of the long-term consequences.

There is Chetana, who is the cast-off daughter of a sex worker who must bear and try to overcome the social stigma of her mother’s profession.

There is Charvi, who is declared a guru by her father and thus forced to live a solitary life in accordance with the worshipful expectations of others.

There is Renuka, who is a widow and refuses to live with her sons and daughters-in-law, who judges everyone but also learns to be selfless.

And there are others, women from all walks of life, seeking shelter.

The events of the book span nearly five decades, from the 50s to 2000, so we get to see these women grow and mature and age. Told more as a series of anecdotes than a single tale, the stories explore the ironies and contradictions and hypocrisies of these women and their lives. They are all capable of both cruelty and condescension and solidarity and kindness toward one another. They protect and betray, they take and give, they help and hurt. No one is perfect, but everyone has some goodness in them.

Among the paradoxes and contradictions in the book is the ashram’s reputation. It is at once respected and disdained. Respected because it is inhabited by a woman who is supposedly touched by the gods but disdained because only the “lowest” women of society take shelter there.

Then there’s the character of Ramanandam, Charvi’s father, who is a feminist in theory but much less so in practice. And Vineetha Raghavan, an engineer who calls herself a feminist but is extremely classist and disdainful toward poor, uneducated women. Charvi is supposed to have the demeanor and temperament of a goddess detached from mundane and petty mortal concerns, ever patient and generous, and even comes to believe herself divine, but she also has a bit of a bitter, hateful current running through her, beneath the serene surface. And even as the women of Tella Meda decry the way some mothers treat their children and deny their agency and care only for “propriety” but not love, when they become mothers themselves, they unwittingly reproduce that kind of mentality.

One of the things I appreciated about the book was how honest it was. Menstruation, lust, and sex are not glossed over or hidden away in denial. Likewise, the abuse, exploitation, and objectification of women by men are addressed and not given a pass. The men who do horrible things are criticized and get their due in time.

Although the ashram is very sequestered from the rest of the world, it also evolves alongside India with its social and political changes. Technology starts to appear, the younger generations have more options for social advancement, and so on. Grounding the stories in the broader context of history makes them all the more realistic and compelling.

Recommendation: I think I’ll say read at your own risk, with content/trigger warnings for abuse, alcoholism, misogyny, whorephobia, body-shaming, colorism, and a relationship between a 20-something and 60-something-year-old.