One of the most welcome trends in publishing in the past few years has been the rise of mythological retellings that re-center ancient stories from legend and folklore around the frequently sidelined, ignored, or unfairly villainized women who exist in their margins. But although books like Madeline Miller’s Circe, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, and Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne are all fantastic stories that give many underserved female characters in classical fiction their voices back, they all generally tend to be focused on explicitly Western texts, like The Illiad, The Odessey, or the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Happily, Vaishnavi Patel’s debut, Kaikeyi, is here to help change that, with its fierce and feminist reframing of the story of one of the most despised queens of Indian mythology, best known for pitting herself against the gods in the epic poem the Ramayana. Essentially little more than a villainous stepmother in the original tale, the Kaikeyi in the poem jealously banishes Rama from the kingdom in the name of putting her own son on the throne.
But Patel’s novel embraces a more nuanced depiction of her character in a retelling that refashions Kaikeyi into a brave and compassionate leader who isn’t simply out for her own ends. Rather, she determinedly pushes back against the edicts of a patriarchal society that views women as little more than extensions of the men in their lives, in the hopes of carving out a better world for all.
The only girl among eight royal siblings, as a child Kaikeyi quickly learns that women have little choice in, and even less power over, the world around them. Her story begins with the exile of her mother, suddenly banished by her father with little explanation, no recourse, and no expectation of ever seeing her again. But as a reeling Kaikeyi is forced to fulfill some of her mother’s former duties, she begins to understand that no matter what her wishes might be, her future will be inevitably tied to who she marries (and whether she can give that man sons) whether she wants it to be or not.
Her frequent trips to the palace library eventually unearth scrolls that teach her how to enter the Binding Plane, a meditative astral realm where she can see and magically manipulate the invisible strings that connect her to others. There, she uses these strings to deepen, change, or control her relationships with those around her, from encouraging her twin brother Yudhajit to teach her to fight like a warrior, to nudging her palace teachers to let her study more serious subjects, and pushing her beloved maid to for lessons in how to be a proper queen. ‘
When she’s eventually married off as the third wife of the childless king of Kosala in the far-away city of Ayodha, she even uses the Binding Plane to strengthen their connection, eventually pushing Dashareth and his advisors to allow her, her sister wives, and, eventually, the rest of the kingdom’s women more agency and power than any have ever had before.
Yes, the idea that Kaikeyi can manipulate the feelings and desires of others is both uncomfortable and problematic, a twist that hints at some of the darker, more controlling aspects of her personality. And she doesn’t always use these abilities for what we might consider unselfish reasons. But throughout the novel, Patel constantly errs on the side of humanizing a figure that is largely remembered for her worst deeds and providing the necessary depth and context for her actions that, though they may not make them better, at least make her behavior easier to understand.
Over the course of the novel, Kaikeyi is recast from a spiteful, jealous wife to a budding revolutionary, a woman fighting to earn a place for herself in a world that tells her she is only valuable in relation to the men around her—in her status as someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. Refusing to be subservient or silent, she does her best to steer her own destiny, and while that may ultimately lead to some selfish and even painfully destructive mistakes, Kaikeyi repeatedly places those choices in a much-needed historical and cultural framework. (Even Kaikeyi’s worst actions, in this retelling, can almost always be traced back to her desire for agency and power within her own life, something she is frequently denied.)
Her relationship with the young heir to the throne—the Rama for whom the epic Indian poem is named, and the boy she will eventually push aside for her own son Bharata—is richly portrayed, as the two obviously care for one another deeply. Yet they frequently clash over his obvious immaturity, the godlike powers he is not at all ready to wield, and his embrace of a conservative religion that would further conscript women’s roles in public life in their kingdom. (A choice that stands in sharp contrast to everything he’s watched Kaikeyi and his father’s wives work for all his life.)
Patel’s writing is lush and imaginative, fashioning a story that is as ambitious in scale and scope as the poem it takes its heroine from. From its complex politics and its willingness to explore complex questions about religion to its assortment of strong female characters and tragic feel, Kaikeyi is a novel that rightly deserves all the buzz it’s going to get this spring.
Kaikeyi is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.