Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel (2022)
In the Indian epic story, The Ramayana, Queen Kaikeyi is the villain. She is the third wife of King Dasharath, mother to Bharata, and is jealous that the son of Dasharath's first wife is heir to the throne. She uses two "boons" granted to her by the king to demand that the eldest son Rama be exiled from the kingdom, and her son be installed as heir. Kaikeyi's maid Manthara is instrumental in convincing Kaikeyi to do this. Rama leaves with his wife and one of his brothers, only to have his wife Sita kidnapped by the demon Ravan. Rama defeats the demon, and returns to his kingdom triumphant.
(I will admit that, before this, the closest I came to having any knowledge of The Ramayana was that in the 1995 film The Little Princess, the main character tells a condensed version of it throughout the movie to entertain her schoolmates.)
In Kaikeyi, Patel reimagines this mythological tale from the queen's perspective, which is decidedly non-villanous. Kaikeyi is a warrior; A strong and intelligent woman whose input is highly valued by the king and his court. After saving the king's life in battle, and proving herself to be an indispensable advisor, she is appointed to Dasharath's council. With her two sister wives, she also forms a separate Women's Council that specifically seeks to empower and protect the women of the kingdom. Despite being the king's third wife, her strength, wisdom, and compassion are so apparent that she becomes the most influential wife, and most respected mother of the three women's four sons. But as Rama grows older his demands for power grow, along with his misogynistic viewpoint, narcissism, and fool-heartiness. Kaikeyi faces the difficult decision of choosing between one of her beloved sons, and the fate of her kingdom.
There are still monsters and gods in this tale, as in the original, but the focus is on the fallibility of humans, as well as their resiliency. There is also magic. I particularly liked the descriptions of the "binding plane" - a plane of existence that Kaikeyi has access to where she can see and manipulate the emotional ties that bind people to her and to each other. Patel weaves a fascinating story about those threads and how Kaikeyi learns to use them.
I really enjoyed this retelling of an old tale. At times a bit slow, but overall really captivating. I think it helps that I wasn't very familiar with the original story, so there wasn't any resistance on my part to a new version of a beloved story. But I think Patel tells a powerful story of complex characters forced to make difficult decisions where no matter what the decision or intention, someone is bound to get hurt. And this story adds so much depth to the original, showcasing an influential and courageous woman who succeeds without help from the gods in a world ruled by men.
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