Book Review

Kaikeyi

Kaikeyi

  • Author: Vaishnavi Patel 
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: April 26, 2022
  • Publisher: Redhook

Thank you to NetGalley and Redhook for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: violence, misogyny, death, grief

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“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.

I have to admit, I don’t know much about Indian mythology, but this was a great introduction. This is a story based on the Ramayana, but there’s a decidedly feminist spin, and I couldn’t help but love it. The fact that it was a “villain” story made it even more amazing.

We start out by learning about Kaikeyi and her early life. She’s gods-touched, which sounds like a good thing but isn’t necessarily. Kaikeyi is fiercely independent, growing up with no mother, an emotionally distant father, and 7 brothers. All of this leads her to develop some modern views about what women can and can’t do, and flouting traditions that are strongly held whenever possible. While she’s portrayed in the Ramayana as a villain, we get a lot of insight into who she really is, what led her to make the decisions she made, and the connections that she has to others.

Her feminist ideas clash strongly with the misogynistic customs of her time (from what I understand the Ramayana was written sometime between 500-1000 BCE). And it doesn’t always win her friends and supporters, although she did make a major difference in the lives of the people she came in contact with—some for the better, some not so much. While words like “asexual” weren’t tossed around much when I was growing up (outside of biology class), it’s not a new concept. And Kaikeyi is a prime example—if she was around today, she’d identify as asexual, but that wasn’t really an identity that was respected in those days, when a woman was responsible for giving her husband children and taking care of the home.

Since I haven’t heard any part of this story before, I went in knowing nothing and was quickly won over to Kaikeyi’s side. She’s an easy character to love, but I had to keep in mind that I viewed the story from a modern lens, when women can do anything a man can do, own their sexual identity, and participate in all areas of society. However, Kaikeyi didn’t live in modern times—she had to adhere to the customs of her own time, despite finding them incredibly restrictive. 

I fell in love with the writing almost at the same time as I fell in love with Kaikeyi. It’s lyrical and beautiful, and provides enough background information (without info-dumping) that I never felt lost or confused. There are various hints of foreshadowing right from the start, so I wasn’t expecting a happy ending for Kaikeyi, but I still hoped. Kaikeyi is a thoroughly modern woman, aiming to enact positive change for all the people of her kingdom, no matter the backlash. 

It was beautiful to see Kaikeyi grow and change over the course of the story, and it incorporated elements of … I’m honestly not sure what to call it. Magic? Divine influence? This took place in a setting where the gods are real and walk among the people, accomplishing their own objectives with little thoughts of the mortals they manipulate. It was amazing to see how it all came together, and I enjoyed every moment of this book, taking my time to savor it rather than flying through.

If there’s one debut you pick up this year, let this be it. It does for Indian mythology what Madeline Miller has done for Greek mythology, bringing it to life in the most gorgeous, heartbreaking, and vivid way.

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