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Friday, September 4, 2015

The Vishakanya's Choice by Roshani Chokshi & Mini-Q&A with the author (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the story HERE (US) & HERE (UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Roshani Chokshi is the author of the Young Adult Indian fantasy novel, THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN, forthcoming from MacMillan/St. Martin's Press in May 2016. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Book Smugglers and The Feminist Wire. Her writing draws from her half-Indian, half-Filipino heritage. Find her at her website and on Twitter (@NotRashKnee).

OFFICIAL BLURB: Did we have a choice? An honest one. A real Choice.”

Who would you be if you had a choice? What would you do?

Early in her life, Sudha’s fate was divined to be a lonely, fruitless future of young widowhood. So, it was considered a blessing when she was brought to the Hastinapur harem to become a vishakanya–a weapon, an assassin, a poison maiden whose very touch is toxic.

Sudha has never had a choice, has never known anything except the cold beauty of the harem’s stone walls. After years of living in isolation with her vishakanya sisters, Sudha is given her first mission: to end the life of a great man. Someone who, unlike her, leads a life full of glittering Choices fit for an emperor.

In their fateful encounter, a vishakanya meets a conqueror and a weapon creates a legend.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Roshani Chokshi’s short story debut caught my attention for two reasons: (a) it featured a tale that had its roots in Indian historical and mythology & (b) it also features Alexander the great at the end of his campaign across the plains of Punjab.

The story is told solely through the viewpoint of Sudha, a vishakanya or poison-maiden. Vishankanyas were women who were poisonous to touch and often assassins who could kill with a touch or that are how the stories go. In this story, we meet Sudha who is forced to enter the kinship of the Vishakanyas as her horoscope details an early widowhood. Never doubting the hor(r)oscope’s predictions, it’s implied that her family gave her away to become a Vishakanya. Sudha has always dreamed of getting a choice but so far all of her klife has been denied one.

When she gets her first assassination target, she’ s forced to re-examine her life as her target, a famed Maecedonian emperor begs her for a choice and gives her in return. This is the main them of the story of choice being given and choice being taken away. The author wonderfully highlights several Indian life facets through this story and also infuses the story with enough magical and steampunky elements to make it stand out.

With this being a short story we don’t get much page time with Sudha and I truly wish that this story was longer as that would allow us to peek longer into Sudha’s frame of mind. The story very beautifully illustrates the life Sudha lives and the agony she faces every time she’s feed poison until it becomes an integral part of her. I loved the descriptions and tiny details the author inserted into the story about the saris & food. It brought the story alive for me quite vividly and I absolutely hope that the author decides to expand the milieu this story is set in.

You can read the story in its entirety over here and enjoy it for the little gem that it is. I was also glad that the author agreed to answer a few of my questions about the story, her upcoming long-form debut & a few other things about her ancestry.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

RC: Hello! I’m Roshani. I write fantasy with a South Asian twist and my first book, THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN will be released by MacMillan in May 2016. I can’t pinpoint what inspired me to write…I think it’s a combination of the rich folklore of my heritage and the feeling of absence when I never saw those stories in bookstores. But more than that, it’s the joy of telling a story and hoping it lingers in someone’s head like a favorite scent.

My journey to publication was one gigantic, ego-pummeling learning experience. I think there’s a lot of impatience in young writers to fling our stories to the world and expect immediate praise or just an immediate home. So often, that’s not the case. You’re a writer the moment you want to write. But honing the story you want to tell, combing through it and making it come alive with words is something that, for me, required a lot of rejection, a lot of reading and a lot of practice.

Q] The Vishakanya’s Choice was recently released. Can you tell us how your story got selected for the Book Smugglers publishing?

RC: I submitted after seeing Book Smugglers call for submissions based on a theme of “First Contact.” That was really interesting to me because although it felt initially very sci-fi, “first contact” encompasses a whole range of experiences. It’s not just one life form meeting another, maybe it’s bridging the space between lips, maybe it’s as simple as touch. After the story was accepted, we went through a couple rounds of edits and then it was graced with a gorgeous cover by Filipina artist, Mia Sereno.

Q] Can you please talk about the inception of The Vishakanya’s choice? How did this story come to be? What was your inspiration for it?

RC: I wanted to talk about choice, and what it meant to different people. I liked the idea of Choice as something tactile, something that you could truly possess. I didn’t have the idea until a family friend lost their daughter to cancer and I felt a lot of resulting anger for her helplessness. I wrote this story almost as wish fulfillment, where things could be different, where she might have had a choice in the matter.

Q] In the Vishakanya’ Choice, you have elements of history, fantasy & steampunk mixing easily. What was your intent with the amalgamation of these genre elements?

RC: I’ve always been fascinated with Alexander the Great. Even as a mere mortal, history has shrouded his reputation with magic, mystery and myth. I wanted to heighten those elements by exploring those final moments. How perhaps a legend (in this case, the vishakanya women) is the only way to finish off a man who wanted to be a myth.

Q] You have a full-length book titled The Star Touched Queen coming out early next year. What can you tell us about your long-form debut?

RC: Ahhh! The debut! It has stars and first-love, prophecies and silver trees. It has secrets that span reincarnated lives and a girl with the night sky on her skin. There’s a much better summary that will be released soon, but at the risk of giving too much away, I’ll just say that it’s the story I’ve always wanted to write. It draws on my favorite fairy tales and myths: Hades and Persephone, Savitri and Satyavan, Cupid and Psyche and Beauty and the Beast.

Q] Is this a standalone title or is it book one of a series?

RC: It’s a standalone! Although I’m working on a companion book set in the same universe right now.

Q] Tell us more about the world that The Star Touched Queen is set in and some of the series’ major characters.

RC: Which world? ;) I’ve always loved the rich settings of ancient India, so that’s one place where the story came alive. In particular, I found myself inspired by some of the subterranean step-wells you can still find in India. To me, they seem downright magical.

As for the other worlds in THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN, there’s a rather sinister Otherworld featuring a Night Bazaar and kingdoms where the trees grow memories instead of fruit.

The book’s main character is Maya, a neglected princess with a terrifying horoscope. She’s kind and clever, a little ruthless and a little mad. She’s ready to see magic in the world, but perhaps not ready to see it in herself. And then there’s Amar, the Raja of a strange Otherworldly kingdom who seems to know a lot more than he lets on.

Q] I believe you are on Indian descent, what mythology stories were you exposed to as a child and do you have any favorites?

RC: I’m half-Indian ☺ My Ba often told me stories when I was younger. Sometimes I still pester her for them. My favorites growing up were all the tales of Krishna as a child. I loved his mischief! My favorite love stories were from the Kalidasa plays, like Urvashi and Pururavas, and Shakuntula.

Q] Who are some of your favorite characters among the stories you read while growing up and why do they stand out for you?

RC: It’s strange because some of my favorite characters are the ones who have tiny, but important roles in the story and then, for some reason, seem to disappear. From the Mahabharata, my favorite character was Uloopi, the Naga-princess who fell in love with Arjun and later saved his life. She was critical in raising his child with another woman and she loved him selflessly from afar, but I don’t know why. She was so important as this deus-ex-machina character, but I always wonder what happened to her after the war.

In the Ramayana, my favorite character was Urmila, the wife of Laxman and younger sister of Sita. She’s praised for making the great sacrifice of sleeping for 14 years while her husband, sister and brother-in-law live as exiles in the forest, but I wonder what kind of character she was. I wonder what it was like to wake up and know the passage of time.

Q] What did you think was the most challenging part about writing your debut novel? What about the easiest or most rewarding parts?

RC: The most challenging part was knowing what I wanted readers to get from the story. I think, sometimes, I got over excited and tried to include too much information or would do the opposite. The most rewarding part has been listening to potential readers tell me how excited they are about an Indian Young-Adult fantasy being released. I can’t wait to share this story with them ☺

Q] What do you do when you aren't writing, what hobbies and proclivities engage you?

RC: I really enjoy traveling and going on walks. I think it’s so easy to become glued to our screens, and I really savor the time spent away from distractions and beeping phones.

Q] In closing, what are you working on now and do you have any parting words for our readers?

RC: Right now, I’m working on Book 2, the companion novel to THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN. To anyone who has taken the time to read my work or plans to, thank you so much. This community’s enthusiasm for new voices is the best inspiration in the world! So thank you ☺

The greatest thing I can ask of you is your time and I’m always humbled by how generous you are with it.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author. Indian stepwell picture courtesy of Victoria Lautman & Christopher Jobson.


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