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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Govinda by Krishna Udayasankar (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE
Read the Prologue HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Krishna Udayasankar was born and brought up in India. As a child she has lived in many cities all across India as well as in different continents such as Africa and Australia. She is a lawyer who holds a PhD in Strategic Management from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, as well as a graduate qualification in International Business and an Honors degree in Law from the National Law School of India University in Bangalore. She currently works as a Lecturer at Nanyang Business School, and is also co-author on an International Business textbook. She lives in Singapore with her family and this is her fantasy debut.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Aryavarta – the ancient realm of the noble. For generations, the Firstborn dynasty of scholar-sages, descendants of Vasishta Varuni and protectors of the Divine Order on earth, has dominated here. For just as long, the Angirasa family of Firewrights, weapon-makers to the kings and master inventors, has defied them. In the aftermath of the centuries-long conflict between the two orders, the once-united empire of Aryavarta lies splintered; a shadow of its former glorious self.

Now, the last Secret Keeper of the Firewrights is dead, killed by a violent hand, and the battle for supreme power in the empire is about to begin. As mighty powers hurtle towards a bloody conflict, Govinda Shauri, cowherd-turned-prince and now Commander of the armies of Dwaraka, must use all his cunning to counter deception and treachery if he is to protect his people and those whom he loves.

But who holds the key to the fantastic and startling knowledge of the Firewrights, which in the wrong hands will bring doom upon the empire? And does Govinda have it in him to confront the dark secrets of his past and discover the true meaning of being Arya, of being noble?

FORMAT/INFO: Govinda is 458 pages long divided over two sections that are further divided into seventy numbered chapters. Narration is in third-person by the following characters: Govinda Shauri, Panchali Draupadi, Partha Savyasachin, Syyodhan Kauravya, Krishna Dwaipayana, Dharma Yudhisthir, Bhishma Devavrata, Asvattama Bhradvaja, Sanjaya Gavalgani, Rukmavati, Bhim Vikrodara and a few other minor POV characters.

There’s an author note, a map of Aryavarta, a note on research methodology and an acknowledgements page. Govinda is the first book in The Aryavarta Chronicles. The second book is titled Firewright and will be out next year. August 10 2012 marked the Trade Paperback publication of Govinda via Hachette India.

ANALYSIS: I have been a fan of history and mythology as long as I can remember, plus being born in India led to me being exposed to a whole host of stories based on history and mythology. For most SFF readers in the subcontinent, their fascination begins when their grandmothers tell them about the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or both. These two epics are the cultural and mythological foundation in India as they deal with magic, heroes, destiny and lots of other things. For me, the Mahabharata always held a special fascination as it had a vast character cast and shades of grey to almost all of them.

My first exposure to this mega story came via the Amar Chitra Katha comic books, then as I read the C. Rajagopalchari version and finally culminating into the canon version by Kisari Mohan Ganguli. Through out these versions, the complexity never dimmed but kept on growing and made the story even more enticing. I also was able to read further volumes that explored the story via various characters or different aspects of the tale itself like Yuganta by Iravati Karve, Mrityunjay by Shivaji Sawant, Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray, Yugandhar by Shivaji Sawant, The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering by Ramesh Menon, Parva by S. L. Bhyrappa etc. My fascination with this story has grown exponentially and I’m ever on the lookout for new books that feature/focus on this magnificent story. So when I came across this new debut, I was intrigued simply by its blurb and wanted to see where it would stand among the aforementioned gems that I have previously read.

The story begins in the past and introduces a land that is slowly decaying from within. We are told about the machinations of the order of Firewrights that has lead to the ruination of the Matsya kingdom. There has been a decades long conflict going on between the Firewrights and the order of the Firstborn, a priestly order that has been leading various nations in matters of theology, politics and social structure. These two orders have been at loggerheads for reasons divulged in the book but that has also lead to various kingdoms arrayed differently in either support or against the Firewrights. However in the recent past things have take a drastically bad turn for the Firewrights and many of their members are dead. The book’s story begins with the murder of Ghora Angirasa (the head of the Firewrights) that upsets many a calculated plan and leads to beginning of the story with Govinda Shauri. Govinda is one of the crown princes of the Vrishini clan and of the Yadu kingdom while also being considered by many to be an enigma. He has led his people from their origins in Mathura to a new city called Dwarka on the Western boundary of Aryavarta. His enmity with Jarasandha, the Magadhan emperor has also complicated the political landscape and he needs to find newer allies to strengthen his own position as well.

Panchali is the princess of the Panchala kingdom who are a force to reckon with and her marriage will further complicate relations between neighboring kingdoms. The Kuru kingdom have their own problems as two groups of princes are looking to mark their own destiny. The Kuru princes are lead by Syyodhan who is a fair person. The Pandava princes are lead by Dharma who considers himself to be a sagacious leader. There are many more characters that play further important roles and should be discovered by the readers. This book takes the bones of the Mahabharata saga and then weaves it away from its magical, divine entity roots and makes it out to be a socio-political saga that makes this debut book very interesting and even so for those (like myself) who have a good idea about what to expect. Its a retelling of the Mahabharata but stripping it away from all its Gods, Magic and poetry. This is a story purely focused on the socio-political structure of the land and the characters that are presented as human beings with agendas of their own.

This was the first terrific thing about the novel that it does away completely with the divinity of the characters and makes out to be real human beings, who are as confused, conflicted and complex as the rest of us. This allows for newer turns in the story and also for the author to explore character relationships in a manner not seen by the readers before. The characters that get a POV in this book are most of the famous ones however the author presents a newer side of their relationships. I loved the author’s interpretation on the character’s motives and thoughts, she presents characters that involve the readers within their world and also allow the author to add a few shades to each and every one of them. There’s also some modern notions that are attributed to this story but I think it was necessary in regards to making the story that much more accessible and for presenting it as a complex socio-political saga.

The author’s prose was also another positive as from the first pages wherein she describes a world that is foreign and a bit different than what most readers have come to expect in the epic fantasy genre. She however does it smoothly whilst being careful so as to not seem to be info-dumping. The world settings as well as the political structure are very effectively described for the readers to understand the why and what about the land. Since this story is focused on the socio-political structure of Aryavarta, this description was a very important component of the story and makes the ongoing conflict a bit easier to understand.

The characterization is also another plus point as the author presents a complex story with a multi-POV structure and with many characters vastly different from those presented in the original texts. This aspect of the story was a smart move on the author’s part as it not only created intrigue but also had me guessing at to what would happen next. The story takes quite some twists as the character relationships are again markedly different than those presented in the canon version of the story. This twist to the story was again a calculated one that makes the reader to be engrossed by the happenings within the story.

I couldn’t find any major faults with this debut and the way the story ends, it will be apparent to the readers what will be coming next (The great war that is the focus of the Mahabharata) but again with all the surprises loaded in this book. I’m not sure what to expect and how the eventual story will turn out.  There's also a curious naming pattern to all the characters and one that I hope the author will clarify in her forthcoming FBC interview. I think this book will be a good surprise to most readers however for those looking for an interpretation closer to the canonical story might not find it here and might be disappointed. I thought this to be the strongpoint for the book but it all depends on the perspective of each reader. There's also the massive character cast and with a character appendix not provided, it might not be easy for readers to remember them all without a moment's hesitation.

CONCLUSION: This book completely blew me away. I consider myself to be well acquainted with the Mahabharata as I have read the original work as well as the other books about it (such as Mrityunjay, Parva, Yajnaseni, and those by C.R. Rajagopalachari, C. Divakaruni, etc). Yet I was completely enthralled by the story, as I was constantly kept a bit askew by the story's turns and twists. This is a complex retelling of a terrific story and is very much recommended for all readers who want something different from the usual pseudo-European fantasy fare. On a sidenote this book also fits perfectly with "Non-European Fantasy by Women" list as well. The Mahabharata is said to be an Ocean of stories, which is ever expanding, Krishna Udayasankar has just added a huge dollop to it that enriches the complexity of the story even more.

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