Retellings are a forever favorite in my books and those based on stories I have not yet heard about easily gain entry in my understanding of mythologies. Thus, Kaikeyi, a retelling of the South Asian tale, “Ramayana,” is an easy sell, especially given its feminist bent.
We start the novel off with the main and title character, Kaikeyi, reflecting on how she is predestined to commit her most infamous act: the banishment of her future stepson. Instead of being a record scratch moment, this long range reflection showcases the effects of major choices and actions on Kaikeyi and those dear to her—the modus operandi of the story. Kaikeyi’s voice centers her agency, or lack thereof, which grows in strength in each act of the book despite the rampant sexism and paternalism she and other women in her life are forced to confront at every turn. Kaikeyi’s ownership of herself stems from learning that her father has banished her mother very early in her adolescence and in the book. This forces her to confront the fact that the most powerful man in her life has no reservations about extending that power to banish the most powerful woman she’s ever known. She uses this knowledge and her trusting relationship with her eldest brother to persuade him into training her in combat, a skillset she has been restricted from as a daughter. Her love of combat training only parallels the joy of reading, something she once shared with her mother. Once her mother is gone, she refrains from reading. But after gaining supernatural abilities from practicing a special meditation, she finds an ancient scroll. This amplifies her understanding of human connections and powers of persuasion, yet it is not enough to keep herself from becoming a pawn in men’s machinations as a young woman.
Fortunately, Kaikeyi is able to make the most of any situation she is thrown into, often due to the support she receives from other women. In fact, one of the best aspects of this novel is how much Kaikeyi’s story is a story about community, particularly the ways that women are able to create better communities by building strong collaborations among themselves. There are many points where Kaikeyi could have turned into a tropey story of a strong action woman who likes to kick butt and take names, or of a scheming female villain only out for her own needs. Yet, the author, Vaishnavi Patel, deftly breaks these molds by having Kaikeyi keep her abilities to herself while also being tantalized by the option to use them purely for her benefit. By doing this we see Kaikeyi grappling with using powers beneficially, which builds a moral barrier between her and the women she collaborates with, and the men who use any source of power against the women in their lives.
Overall, Kaikeyi is a successful debut novel that serves as an intriguing entry point into Hindu mythology while also standing well enough on its own for those longing for a story about an oft misunderstood strong female character who is more than just the archetype.
*BGC kindly thanks the teams at Redhook and Orbit Books for early access to this book.*