It’s been such a good reading year for me and after finishing Kaikeyi, I can say that I’ve found another favorite of 2022. Filled with magic, adventure, political intrigue, feminist themes, and a woman who believed her fate was much bigger than what was foretold, I think everyone will truly appreciate Kaikeyi. Thanks Orbit Books for the gifted read.
“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.
While I’m not the leading expert on Ramayana, I had some idea of how the story goes before I started reading the book. I knew that Rama is supposed to be the hero. I knew that Kaikeyi was essentially the wicked stepmother that condemns him to exile for 14 years in the forest, to fight evil monsters, and then return to become king of Ayodhya. I expected to watch Kaikeyi and shake my head at all the nefarious ways she tried to gain control and power, but what I ended up doing was feeling so bad for her. I felt empathy for the villain, but the uncanny part of the story is that she actually isn’t the villain. In fact in her small way, she was a hero.
I think one of the downsides of villain stories and myth retellings is that you end up seeing the exact steps a villain takes to become the person they’re portrayed. The evil queen was evil because people made her evil. The wicked stepmother had no choice but to be wicked. However, Vaishnavi Patel approached Kaikeyi in a different way. Instead, she shared a villain that’s only flaw was loving her family. She shared the story of a woman redefining her role in the kingdom that didn’t listen to her and giving voice to the voiceless. There was no evil in Patel’s Kaikeyi, just a series of unfortunate missteps that led to her losing almost everything.
And that’s how you garner the level of empathy you feel for Kaikeyi throughout the story. It shapes itself into its own story creating a modern tale of empowerment and strength. It’s less about how she wickedly banishes Rama so that her son can become king and more about a woman who lived in a world that granted her no power and she did what she could.
Let’s not forget that Kaikeyi’s biggest passion outside of her family was bringing a voice to the voiceless; namely to the women of this time. Beholden to older beliefs that women are child rearers, home carers, and any choice they make is an offense against their beliefs and the gods. I loved that Patel explored this throughout the book not only for Kaikeyi, but for the people she served. It’s truly the biggest component of the book that lends itself in ways I didn’t even see by the end.
The magic in the story is also incredible. Aside from the monsters and gods that make appearances throughout the story, the magical power Kaikeyi has was also very interesting. I won’t get into the details of it because it plays such an important role in the story. I want you to read about it and see how it works itself into Kaikeyi’s life. And it really weaves itself throughout the book not as a tool for manipulation (which is what I thought because she’s supposed to be the villain), but as a tool of self-assurance; that what she’s doing is the right thing and that she can help others with it as well.
Each of the characters are also so well written. They play such vital roles in Kaikeyi’s life and you can see that enforced through her bonds with them. I loved that there were men in her life that loved the change she was bringing. I loved that her husband, Dasharath, was supportive of her work in the city. I also loved that there was opposition; that the ways of the past continued to encroach on the progress she’s led. I loved that it didn’t come easy for her and that she had more to protect than just her family. Even the gods and goddesses that made their way into the story were elegantly written to give the readers an understanding of their power and their intelligence.
The story is almost poetic in its writing and the pacing kept you reading on. There were moments where I didn’t want to put the book down! That’s always a good sign that the book has my full attention and my mind isn’t wandering off on some menial task I needed to accomplish.
Overall, Vaishnavi Patel has written something truly special. It’s a story that will win over the adventure seekers and fantasy readers, but it will also speak deeply to those who feel hopeless and bring a level of light to those who are wandering in the dark.