Review: Kaikeyi - Vaishnavi Patel
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling
Published: Redbook/Orbit, April 2022
My Rating: 2.5/5 stars
“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions - much good it did me.”
I’ve struggled quite a bit with my feelings on Kaikeyi and after weighing the good and the bad, I’ve ultimately landed smack down in the middle on a 2.5 star rating.
Kaikeyi is the next addition to the genre of ancient-myths-retold that exploded after the success of Madeline Millers Greek Mythology retellings, and retells the Ramayana from the perspective of the villainous queen. As such, I’ve divided my thoughts and this review into two parts; first looking at this book as a piece of (literary) fantasy, as it’s primarily been marketed, and second as a retelling. Both landed me on a “mixed” judgement, but for different reasons entirely.
As a fantasy novel:
If we take away the context, and look at Kaikeyi as a standalone fantasy novel, we’re left with an alright story, that simply wasn’t for me. There’s obviously a large focus on royalty and the court-intrigue-politics, which happens to be my least favourite fantasy-trope. Objectively, I think it’s a solid book that many fans of this genre will like, but subjectively it brought my enjoyment far down. Kaikeyi as a protagonist is the novels biggest selling point for me. You can tell the author put a lot of work in developing her character to be a rounded woman, beyond the vengeful “evil stepmother”-role she portrays in the Ramayana. I enjoyed the authors exploration of her struggle to find her place in a male-dominated world and discovering a way to assert authority of her own, when she often feels like a plaything for others to be manipulated. Her unique magical ability ties into this perfectly. Kaikeyi is able to access the Binding Plane; a version of reality in which she can see and manipulate the strings that connect people. It slots perfectly into our protagonists character; a woman so reliant on her social intelligence and literally “pulling strings” in order to exert her influence. I love when a magical power is an extension of a character-trait, and I’ve never seen it done quite in this way before.
Weaker points where the side-characters (many feeling flat and quite one-dimensional as opposed to Kaikeyi), and the worldbuilding that I never quite got a feeling for.
As a retelling:
Judging this book as a retelling is where my feelings truly get mixed, and even a little uncomfortable. Kaikeyi follows all the same beats we already know from classic myth retellings, with one major exception, which I will come back on near the end of this review. In addition to feeling very “same-y” to its genre-competitors, it also falls into all the same traps they’ve already tested my tolerance of. To name a few:
- The Feminist Approach
In almost every classic-retelling, we encounter an enlightened (female protagonist), who embodies all feminist ideals and morals of our modern time, regardless of the context of the original story. Placing modern feminist views on century-old characters may help to make the story more familiar and comfortable to modern audiences, but it also feels anachronistic and inauthentic at times. There are more ways fitting to have empowered female characters than to have them quote 21st-century feminist morals.
- The Western adaptation
Other than the feminist themes, many other social, moral and cultural elements of western culture are often introduced into these stories, either to make them more familiar to a Western audience, or because it’s what the author knows best. This can take away from the authentic feel of the original. I’m curious to hear from Hindu-readers how they experienced this, because for me (as a white Western European woman) I very much felt like the target audience.
- The Flipping-The-Hero
In order to justify the actions of traditionally villainous characters, authors often feel the need to vilify the hero of the original story to an extreme. Much more interesting to me would be to create a full cast of fleshed out characters, all of which are morally non-binary. Circe to me is the perfect example of how to do that right.
This final point leads me to the aspect in which Kaikeyi differs from many of the other commercially successful classical retellings. Where Greek mythology has very few (if any) modern-day believers, this cannot be said for Hinduism. When your source material still holds high significance to currently living individuals there is always the risk of offence, especially in vilifying a significant religious figure. For this reason, I highly recommend you seek out own-voice reviews from Hindu-readers, as I personally don’t feel comfortable judging this aspect of the novel.
I can see this re-imagining being interpreted as very powerful, or very offensive, depending on your personal context. For me, completely lacking any of this context, it was a middle-of-the-road addition to its genre.
Many thanks to Orbit for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. You can add this book to your Goodreads here.