Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Soul Warrior (Age of Kali #1) by Falguni Kothari

Karna, the Soul Warrior has a followed his duty for centuries – but he never imagined he would have a new duty pressed upon him: raising and training the 5 children of his brothers. And, surprise of all, his own child.

And, contrary to what the gods implied, they are all female. He never anticipated having to raise and train 6 women. And not while an ancient enemy is rising and his newly found daughter seems to be intimately connected to the upcoming battle.

That’s aside from her fraught relationship with the mother of those women.

I find myself on very uncertain ground while reading this book. This book is based extremely heavily on the Mahabharata, all the characters are drawn from the Mahabharata, the history is from the Mahabharata and most of the world setting, legends et al are from the Mahabharata.

By the prologue and explanatory notes make it very clear that the author has done a lot of research and study into the Mahabharata and is clearly very very very familiar with this story, its characters and its legend. I get an overwhelming sense that the author loves this story and this story and legend is immensely important and vital to her – and you can feel that in the book. This is a book by someone who has loved this epic and wanted it to continue, wanted to follow it further, not wanted it to end and wanted it to go on for far more awesomeness. The preamble also makes it clear that liberties have been taken with the original text and also that there are many different theories and takes on the original epic and which ones the author has chosen to follow.

While I, I am not immersed in or knowledgeable of the Mahabharata. I’ve read some of it though I have no idea how good or true those translations are. I am not even remotely qualified to say how true these characters are to the original epic, whether the author has done an excellent job of preserving the style or the feel of the original. I’m not going to try, I will only say there is a strong sense of effort, research and familiarity in this book.

If you are not familiar with the Mahabharata then this book is still very readable – but I think it would help a lot if you have read it (certainly more so than I have) as there is a very large cast of characters. It is possible to keep up with most of them, certainly the ones who are directly relevant to the story – but there’s a lot of story and history and development that is alluded to but not portrayed. That’s not to say don’t read this book –because it is excellent and well written with some fascinating characters and world settings – but it’s my awareness that this book would be even more awesome if I were more familiar with the Mahabharata than I am (in fact, it’s a comment on this book that it makes me want to go read the epic far more).

I think part of this is that all of the characters are very real, even when we only see snippets of their personalities, there clearly is a full personality there we just haven’t had chance to explore in this book. There’s also a lot of really fun moments (though I rather suspect Lord Yama isn’t true to the legend given his comedic aspect)

I loved the writing which, generally, hit that nice spot between being evocative and descriptive and still keeping the story moving. I say generally because I think there is a flabby moment in the middle which I’m not sure what was happening – Karna was supposed to be training his daughter and nieces but didn’t seem to be doing so, the demons are plotting something but we’re not entirely sure what or how and there’s no real indication what Karna, Eklavya etc are actually doing about it

I also wasn’t a great love of Karna and Draupadi and their endless all consuming romance-tropey drooling (there’s a limit to how often someone can declare someone to be so hot and sexy and their body/skin/smell drives them wild before it’s dull). And there’s the elephant in the room with Draupadi and Karna’s relationship and how Yahvi was conceived – Draupadi pretended to be someone else (with woo-woo) in order to have sex with Karna. At the time Karna loathed Draupadi – now there’s a lot of interesting debate and examination about how justified that hatred was – but it remains that Karna loathed her and most certainly would NOT have consented to have sex with her had he known who Draupadi was. That is rape by deception – it’s not ok and it is never ever addressed – compounded and exacerbated by Karna entering into an actual relationship with his rapist.

Draupadi as a character is almost entirely focused on her daughters to the exclusion of all else and that is a little frustrating that her focus is so narrow and there’s so little to her personality beyond that – but a lot of it makes sense given the circumstances they’re in. I also really like some of the conversations she has with Karna. One great moment is Karna continually expressing his contempt for Draupadi’s comforts and luxuries and her asking why everything had to be so hard with him – like he has some kind of noble fetish for asceticism for asceticism’s sake.

Yahvi is another character that, on the face of it, is frustrating. She has the great mighty woo-woo of awesome which currently isn’t realised so she spends so much of her time fainting, worrying and generally being frustrated and upset by how weak she is. Except it works in this book. It works because she’s 16 surrounded by people who are centuries – millennia – old. She should feel out of place. It’s perfectly human to feel intimidated by her surroundings. It also works because this is clearly the first of many books and there’s a lot more to come, presumably with Yahvi and a suggestion that she will grow into her potential

It also helps a lot that her sisters, even if many of them do lack development, are excellent at what they do, represent a diverse array of strengths (including at least two who are not combat aligned showing different kinds of strength) and excellent portray both competence and challenge Karna’s habit of trying to keep them safe simply because they are female when they have proven themselves competent and capable over and over again.

Another excellent element of this book is not simply judging people by their first appearance, whether they are demons or not, or the colour of their souls (in this book we have blue – aszura, red – demon and green – human souls among others). People are more than no just what they appear, but also more than their past actions. Growth, redemption and change are heavy themes throughout the book, no-one is entirely defined by one incarnation or one act – even while they cannot ignore or dismiss those acts.

Naturally as a book set in India and drawing on Hindu legends, nearly every character here is South Asian, POC predominate this book, albeit only people from the Indian sub-continent. There are no LGBT people.

This book is vastly different from most of the books I’ve read before, running with a mythology that rarely gets much attention in the genre. It has a huge cast of fascinating characters, a deep and rich world and definitely something I’m interested in following