Book Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Author: Vaishnavi Patel
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Redhook
Publish Date: April 26, 2022
Print Length: 496

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Official Synopsis

“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 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 reimagines the life of the infamous queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana, weaving a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak–and an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

My Review

I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.

KAIKEYI is a retelling of the Indian epic the Ramayana from the perspective of the maligned Kaikeyi. Prior to KAIKEYI, the retellings I read were inspired by Western lore; I more or less had an idea of what to expect in these stories. I decided I didn’t want to have any idea of what might happen, so I dove into this book without any knowledge of this epic to avoid any preconceptions. After I finished KAIKEYI, I looked up the Ramayana and summaries of it and the characters. I feel I made the right choice (for myself) to read the book first because the main events are generally the same. (As opposed to some retellings which rewrite a lot of the original story.) I thought I’d mention my personal approach to reading KAIKEYI in case you might be in a similar situation regarding knowledge of the epic.

That said, KAIKEYI is a tale that interweaves feminism, fate, faith, and familial love. My favorite theme by far in this retelling is the feminism Kaikeyi strives to cultivate as Radnyi in the kingdom of Kosala. The author does a fantastic job showing the reader the injustices women face and how tactfully Kaikeyi reacts to improve their lives. Patel shows us that misogyny can be so ingrained in a culture that even loved ones are blind to their own prejudice. Thus, Kaikeyi uses her own experienced injustices as motivation to slowly reshape society’s opinions of women, one council meeting at a time.

Fate and faith play off of each other–can there be one without the other? The gods appear to have abandoned Kaikeyi, yet she does not fully forsake them. Only as an adult does she cryptically learn why the gods won’t speak to her. Though she cannot fully ignore that the gods know her fate, Kaikeyi chooses to focus more on the world in front of her; that is, what she can control and who she can help. Patel also explores how unequivocal acceptance of a religious authority figure’s views can lead to the inability to examine things for oneself, resulting in inflexible thought and stagnation. Faith doesn’t mean blind acceptance of teachings from generations with values that may no longer align with modern society’s burgeoning awareness of equality and equity. One can remain faithful and respectful of the gods without relegating a group of people to endure a lifetime of prejudice. As an aside, it’s interesting that free thought is important in religion given that Kaikeyi can use her magic to influence others. It begs the philosophical question of whether or not this is acceptable since she uses her abilities to affect good change rather than subverting those around her.

Familial love plays a large role in KAIKEYI in so many important, nuanced ways. Kaikeyi is one of three wives to the Raja of Kosala who choose to respect rather than compete with each other. Through their mutual admiration, we see how women lifting other women up benefits literally everyone, however directly or indirectly. Parental love also plays an important role showing that love or lack thereof can harbor confidence or hurt. However, it is not a cure all and Patel shows that corruption of the mind can sometimes trump familial connection. Another important takeaway is that familial love doesn’t have to take precedence over self worth. We see this play out between Kaikeyi and her twin brother, Yudhajit; they love each other dearly, but ingrained prejudices asborbed by her brother result in trying moments.

KAIKEYI is a very character-driven story in which Kaikeyi grows more confident in herself and her abilities and works to implement equitable change. Thus, the world-building and magic as a whole aren’t as prominent, though Patel takes care to describe Kaikeyi’s surroundings. I personally felt the pacing was a bit slow, with the crux of the story occuring near the end, which affected my rating. Objectively, I suppose this fits the overall style of the story which feels much like an abridged epic. However, I really enjoyed the themes present within KAIKEYI and feel they remain pertinent today. I also enjoyed reading about Kaikeyi’s journey and what guided her choices to result in many viewing her with scorn.

Rating: 4/5
Content warnings: parental abandonment, battle scenes
Reading format: Kindle e-book

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