By Vaishnavi Patel
I received an ARC of Kaikeyi from Redhook Books in exchange for an honest review.
Circe is the book that launched a thousand female-forward retellings of ancient stories: The Silence of the Girls, A Thousand Ships, The Witch’s Heart, Ariadne, and seemingly countless others. Kaikeyi, a refreshing departure from the Western locus from which most of these myths originate, is the first that I’ve read—and mind you, I haven’t read them all—that has challenged Madeline Miller’s crown. This is not a competent but inferior imitation of Circe; this is a rich and fully-realized novel in its own right, filled with characters and relationships which are complex, dynamic, and engaging. I loved it and will be recommending widely.
Kaikeyi retells events from the Ramayana from the perspective of Kaikeyi, one of the wives of King Dasharath of Kosala, who sends her stepson Rama into exile so her son Bharata can take the throne. Patel portrays Kaikeyi’s life leading up to Rama’s exile: she grows up with seven brothers in the kingdom of Kekeya and is particularly close with her twin, Yudhajit, and she trains in the art of war prior to her marriage to Dasharath. At Ayodhya, the capital of Kosala, Kaikeyi befriends her husband’s other wives, and the three women begin implementing social, political, and cultural reformations throughout the kingdom.
Kaikeyi has no trouble carrying this story. She is an active and motivated character, and I found myself invested both in her endeavors to fight on the battlefield and enact change in the people around her. Her relationship with Yudhajit is a particular highlight—the elasticity and raw energy they have together speaks to the deep and complicated love of a sibling relationship. Kaikeyi also has the ability to see into the “Binding Plane,” a world where her relationships with others manifest as colorful cords of various textures and thicknesses, each of which reflects the nature of that relationship. It’s a smart storytelling device which provides the reader with an effective shortcut to emotional investment.
Relationships are where Kaikeyi shines most brightly. Patel’s prose, while smooth and readable, sometimes leans a bit too heavily on telling rather than showing, and the way she handles pacing can occasionally be clunky, especially when events begin cascading into one another near the end of the book. This can make it difficult to parse the motivations of certain characters. I also found the increased presence of fantastical elements later in the novel to be somewhat awkward, given the suddenness with which they are introduced to the story; this works in mythic texts, but not so much in contemporary literature.
Patel is particularly deft in her portrayal of the patriarchy. Male characters in this book are not, for the most part, mustache-twirling misogynists—rather, they have been swallowed up whole by patriarchal institutions, and their misogyny tends to manifest as well-meaning microaggressions. It truly hurts when male characters who are kind and likeable, such as Yudhajit and Dasharath, make harmful comments about women, because their intentions are pure and they genuinely cannot recognize when they are causing pain and reinforcing the patriarchy. This is captured best of all by the character of Rama, who slips into a misogynistic mindset despite Kaikeyi’s efforts to raise a feminist.
Kaikeyi has a couple chinks in its armor. The ending feels a bit rushed, several characters (including but not limited to Asha, Sita, Urmila, and Ravana) needed more presence in the story to fully flesh out its themes, and I wanted more conflict for Kaikeyi; all things considered, she does pretty well for herself in an environment which is stacked against her, and I would have appreciated more failure and friction—which would have enriched both the character and the story overall. That said, Kaikeyi feels like the first book since Circe capable of delivering that same magic.
Don’t miss this one.
Review by Erin Larson