Tag Archives: Indian

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.

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.

Review for Starcursed by Nandini Bajpai

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My Summary: Leelavati has a cursed horoscope that portends death for whomever she marries. Resigned to a fate of never being wed, she spends her time teaching astronomy, having learned much of the science from her father, the renowned Bhaskara Acharya. Then, her childhood friend Rahul Nagarseth, returns, and the two fall for each other. Thus, they find out whether the stars will keep them apart, or whether they can turn the tides of fate.

Review:

So, part of the basic premise of this book sounds fairly similar to The Star-Touched Queen, with the cursed horoscope and all, but the execution is vastly different (it was published in 2013, by the way). Whereas The Star-Touched Queen is historical fantasy, Starcursed is regular historical fiction. Instead of magic, we have science. The story is set in 12th century India, with the wars led by Muhammad of Ghor as the backdrop.

Bhaskara Acharya was a real person in history, a famous mathematician and astronomer, and he named one of the four parts of his greatest work after a woman, Leelavati. It’s unknown whether she was a real person, and if so, what her relationship was with Bhaskara Acharya, but in this story, she is imagined as his daughter.

Although some may find it boring, I really enjoyed the incorporation of real historical science into the narrative. (That might be my inner space nerd speaking.) Leela is an admirable young woman, wielding her intellect the way a fantasy heroine might wield spell or sword. She stands up to the misogyny of people who assume that because she is a woman, she cannot be a gifted astronomer. She proves that one woman can outperform a group of men in a competition of calculations.

I liked that Leela’s character explicitly pointed out that there was a time before her own when women-scholars were prevalent, to illustrate that misogyny within a society is not static and unchanging but rather is contextual and dynamic. There was also some commentary on how misogyny is indoctrinated into boys, as she has no issues with her younger male students doubting her competence but runs into skepticism from older boys and men.

The romance between Leela and Rahul is sweet and strong in a quiet kind of way, compared to the typical YA fare. Their romance is built upon their friendship. The two are intellectually compatible, share common interests in astronomy, and Rahul genuinely respects Leela and does not feel threatened by her brilliance or the need to one-up her.

Unfortunately for the two of them, they come from different castes and religions (Leela is a Brahmin and Hindu, Rahul is a Vaishya and Jain). Rahul is also biracial Indian and Chinese in a society where miscegenation isn’t viewed favorably. The two have various obstacles to circumvent, not least of which is Leela’s cursed horoscope.

I recognize the author’s attempt to incorporate Rahul’s Chinese heritage into the story, but it flopped in the execution. At first I thought it would be okay because the Chinese astronomy/astrology references checked out, facts-wise, in the early portion. The other stuff was super questionable though.

One was the anachronistic use of and referral to Chinese language(s). Nobody besides linguists knows what 12th-century Chinese sounds like, so obviously I’m not expecting anyone to actually write a character speaking the language of the time. But everything else was also anachronistic:

  • The labeling of things as “Chinese” and the use of “China” makes no sense as the toponym “China” didn’t come into common usage until the 16th century or so. Historically, China was referred to by its dynastic name, in this case it would have been the Song Empire.
  • The story also refers to the Chinese language that Rahul speaks as Mandarin. Mandarin did not exist at that time and did not come into existence until late in the history of China, having undergone significant sound changes from the Middle Chinese languages.
  • Then, there was the use of “Cantonese” as a descriptor, which is also bizarre because Canton is the name for Guangdong/Guangzhou that came from muddling the Portuguese name Cantão, a name that wasn’t given until a few centuries after the events of the book.

I know this is really nitpicky but I can’t help but notice it because of who I am. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the story, it just bugged me whenever stuff like it popped up.

So aside from the language issues, Rahul’s character knows kung fu and yeah…that’s really stereotypical. It wasn’t his most prominent trait, but it was a Thing. Sigh.

The good part about Rahul’s characterization was that he brings a much more open-minded perspective to the cast of characters, countering the xenophobia of many Indian scholars toward Chinese people, as well as prejudice toward the Turkis people who are not involved in the invasion of India. Overall, the book had threads of criticism against classism, xenophobia, and prejudice, including religious prejudice. I appreciated having those elements in a historical fiction book.

Recommendation: I ragged on the Chinese stuff pretty hard, but I actually liked the book quite a bit for what it was, so I’d still recommend it–with the caveat that you shouldn’t take the Chinese elements as historically accurate.

Review for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

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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: Zacharias Wythe has a lot on his hands: he’s the newly instated Sorcerer Royal, people are accusing him of murdering his mentor and predecessor, and the magic of England is dwindling for unknown reasons. He goes off to the border between England and Fairyland to investigate and in the process, meets Prunella Gentleman, a powerful young woman with a mysterious past. Together they will change the face of thaumaturgy and magic in England.

Review:

If I had known that both of the main characters of this book were POC, I would have read it earlier. It wasn’t readily apparent from the book blurb, so I didn’t realize it until I saw people talking about it on Twitter. Anyway, I’m glad I finally got to this book.

I’m not altogether unfamiliar with Regency fantasy. I read Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery & Cecilia series years ago and enjoyed the books. Sorcerer to the Crown isn’t really YA, though, and it has a different approach to the genre. Namely, instead of the usual white British protagonists, we have a Black man and a biracial Indian woman front and center.

Sorcerer to the Crown refutes the idea that historical fantasy based on the real world has to be white. POC existed in that time, and it’s only their erasure from history that makes people think they didn’t. It also challenges the belief that historical fiction can only reproduce but not criticize the prevailing social norms of its setting.

Far from side-stepping the issue of race, Sorcerer to the Crown actively engages in critical commentary on the dominant racial attitudes of the time. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers consists only of white men until Zacharias is brought forth by his mentor, Sir Stephen. He publicly proves himself more than capable of advanced magic; however, that does not deter many of the bigots from questioning his competency because of his skin color.

The book addresses all the subtleties and nuances of being the only POC in a white-dominated environment. For example, Zacharias feels the fear associated with having to act as a representative of his entire race. He experiences stereotype threat at first. He has a complicated relationship with Sir Stephen, whom he respects and loves as a father figure and mentor but also resents as someone who was torn away from his birth parents and at times treated more like a curiosity or pet than a child. He faces rumors that he didn’t become the Sorcerer Royal by just means. He is blamed for the decline in ambient magic levels in England.

Prunella’s experiences are shaped by the intersection of race and gender. Not only is she a POC, she’s a woman of color. Even outside the realm of magic, she is viewed through a prejudiced lens, assumed to be a morally depraved and sexually “indecent” woman. The white men of the magical establishment barely deign to recognize the magical skills of upper class white women, who are forced to purge themselves of any magic “for their own good,” let alone a biracial brown woman. The idea that she might be trained in sorcery is absurd to the Society members.

But train her Zacharias does, to both their benefits. While everyone else is making a fuss plotting to have Zacharias removed from his position and even killed, he and Prunella are working together to fix issue of the missing magic and avoid diplomatic disasters for the Crown.

Aside from tackling race and gender, the book also calls out classism. The Society members are all gentlemen from prestigious, “well-bred” families, and they largely disdain the magical spells of the working class as inferior and unsophisticated, even though objectively speaking they’re no less artful or intricately constructed than those of the rich. Zacharias doesn’t have his head too far up his ass to realize this, so he has a mind to reform not only the gender restrictions but also the class restrictions on becoming thaumaturges.

I’ll be honest and say the beginning was slow and hard to get through, but once I adjusted to the old-fashioned writing style, it was smoother sailing. The dialogue is witty and the magical elements original. I really loved the dynamic between Zacharias and Prunella, and the supporting characters were a diverse lot with their own charms. The last half definitely picked up a lot in terms of pacing, and the ending was a blast. I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in the series. The only thing that was missing from this book was queerness and disability rep.

Recommendation: Highly recommended! If you like historical fantasy with an explicitly social justice bent, this book is perfect for you.

Review for A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Veda has a passion for dancing and is a competitive dancer of traditional Indian Bharatanatyam. When she gets into an accident that results in her right leg being amputated below the knee, she must find a way to cope with the loss and regain her dance skills.

Review:

So I already read a book by Padma Venkatraman, Climbing the Stairs, but unlike that book, A Time to Dance is written in verse rather than prose. I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with poetry. I tend to like prose better, but some poetry is just so great that it makes me wish I were any good at writing it (my high school poetry was…terrible).

A Time to Dance is told in beautifully evocative language, rich with detail and figurative language. The author’s description of movement and affect draws you into Veda’s physical and emotional experiences.

Veda is a very relatable character for me. Her mother pushes her toward engineering and science, but her true passion lies with dance. Although U.S. society values engineering, my passion is creative writing. Veda is stubborn but a bit aloof, preferring dance to socializing. I prefer reading and writing alone in my room over parties and such.

Overall, the portrayal of disability seemed pretty good to me based on my knowledge. Veda is not reduced to her disability. She also struggles with things like parental expectations, tension in friendships, fitting in among her peers, crushes, and so on.

The downsides to disability are not ignored or minimized. Veda faces ableism from people around her, from strangers rudely asking her what happened to her leg, to taunts from peers that are laced with slurs and horrible jokes, to her dance teacher believing that she will no longer be able to dance ever again. Moreover, Veda must overcome ableist views that she has internalized: that she is useless, or lesser, or incomplete because of her disability.

At the same time, there are plenty of counterexamples to balance the ableist bits: Veda’s grandmother loves her unconditionally, the bus driver who drives the route to her school welcomes her back without drawing attention to her disability, her new teachers focus on what she can do and don’t act condescending toward her, she is shown professional dancers with prosthetic limbs who serve as role models to her, she meets other people who are disabled and living their lives, and she is reminded that the god Shiva dances in everyone and everything, so there is no one right way to exist or to dance.

The one issue I noticed was a part that said:

when he says I’m “differently abled,”

not handicapped, not disabled,

[line omitted]

he makes me feel

a little less ugly.

While “differently abled” is a term used with good intentions by this character, who is Veda’s caregiver, the implication here is that being disabled is ugly and negative, thus furthering stigmatizing disability.

That said, since I’m able-bodied, my perspective and sensitivity are limited. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you read a more nuanced and thorough review of this book and its representation of disability by someone who is herself an amputee here.

Veda’s emotional journey is a spiritual journey as well. Her passion for dance is fueled by her connection with the god Hindu god Shiva, whose temple she first visited as a young girl. Following her accident, she loses faith in herself and with it, her spiritual inspiration. As she learns to cope with her disability, she also undergoes a spiritual awakening. Although I’m not religious myself, I walked away from this book with a sense of hope and faith that was uplifting because it is so powerful and moving.

Recommendation: Highly recommended!