Kaikeyi

I love retellings, and though I’ve never read the Ramayana, I was excited for Vaishnavi Patel‘s debut novel, Kaikeyi. Here, the infamous queen gets to tell her side of things, offering a more sympathetic perspective than she usually receives.

Summary

Kaikeyi is the only daughter born to the kingdom of Kekaya, and although she seems to have a grand future ahead of her, the gods have a far worse fate set out for her. After her mother is banished and she seems to be continuously ignored by the gods, Kaikeyi finds a bit of magic that she can wield to bend others to her will. But will it be enough in the difficult life ahead of her? When she marries and becomes the favored wife, a skilled diplomat, and even a warrior, her fate seems to have improved. But what will it take for her to banish her stepson and make her the most hated woman in her kingdom? How could everything turn out so wrong for Kaikeyi, despite all her power?

Review

Kaikeyi is divided into four parts, each focusing on a distinct part of the titular character’s life. Early on, she’s carefree and naive, but also has a lot of self-doubt. After her mother is banished—for reasons she doesn’t really understand—she clings to the bit of magic left behind in the pages of a book. Although the gods never answer Kaikeyi’s prayers, she does have a secret power to bend others to her will. This could come in handy as she ages.

Especially in the first half, Kaikeyi is an awkward young woman. She’s flawed and makes mistakes, and though I rolled my eyes at some of her blunders, I kept hoping she would find her footing. She excels on the battleground first, but it takes her longer to master interpersonal relationships. Eventually, though, she seems to be in good standing with the people in her life.

So how does everything go so wrong for Kaikeyi? How does she go from beloved family member and respected diplomat to a hated woman who would banish her own stepson? I love how Vaishnavi Patel brings Kaikeyi’s character to life here, sharing her side of events and making her a much more sympathetic character than in the Ramayana. (Though I admittedly haven’t read the Ramayana; I couldn’t say how much she’s changed here.)

I enjoyed seeing Kaikeyi grow as a person. She becomes more confident, generally uses her power for good and to help others, and is an integral part of her ever-growing family. But I also liked seeing how she handles hardship, using every trick she can think of to prevent certain devastation. She’s resilient and compassionate, even if others don’t always recognize it. To be fair, she ends up in a secret battle against a uniquely formidable opponent. Even so, and even though I knew how things would turn out, I kept believing in Kaikeyi and her mission.

Kaikeyi is a book with gods and magic, strong family dynamics, and a central character who grows into her own as the decades pass. It’s slow-paced but engrossing and makes for a powerful retelling.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading Kaikeyi and getting to know a character I knew little about. I’d love to see more Ramayana retellings! This is a strong debut, and I look forward to reading Vaishnavi Patel’s future books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Get the Book

You can buy Kaikeyi here – it’s available as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
AudienceAdult
GenreHistorical Fiction; Fantasy
SettingIndia
Number of Pages475
Format I ReadHardcover (BOTM)
Original Publication DateApril 2022

Official Summary

AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB PICK • “MYTHIC RETELLING AT ITS BEST.” (R. F. Kuang, author of Babel)

“With a graceful, measured elegance” (New York Times), this lyrical novel reimagines the life of the infamous queen from the ancient epic the Ramayana, giving voice to an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.

So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on legends of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear. 

Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her. 

But as the evil from her childhood tales threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak—and what legacy she intends to leave behind. 

About the Author

Vaishnavi Patel

Vaishnavi Patel is a law student focusing on constitutional law and civil rights. She likes to write at the intersection of Indian myth, feminism, and anti-colonialism. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Kaikeyi. Vaishnavi grew up in and around Chicago, and in her spare time, enjoys activities that are almost stereotypically Midwestern: knitting, ice skating, drinking hot chocolate, and making hotdish.

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