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Monday, August 19, 2019

Dual Review: A Spark Of White Fire & A House Of Rage And Sorrow by Sangu Mandanna (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order A Spark Of White Fire over HERE
Pre-order A House Of Rage And Sorrow over HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Sangu Mandanna’s Celestial series drew me with its premise of being based on Mahabharata. I read both A Spark Of White Fire (book 1) and A House Of Rage And Sorrow (book 2) back to back and I enjoyed how the author juxtaposed the Mahabharata epic within a SF setting with genderflipped roles and many a twists.

The overall story is the main conflict between the Rey family. Our protagonist is Esmae a nobody of sorts on the spaceship of Wychstar. Ruled by King Darshan Karn and his children, it’s a city of fairness and stability. However King Darshan has created Titania a sentient space ship that’s indestructible and also the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Setting up a contest to have the best archer win it, everyone is confounded when an unknown entity wins it and announces herself as scion of the house of Rey. The House of Rey is divided as the current king Elvar and his queen Gwinne rule within the dominion of Kali. However they have exiled queen Kyra and her two children Alexi & Abra Rey after the death of Cassel Rey. Cassel and Elvar were siblings however Elvar the elder brother was set aside because of his congenital blindness and Cassel ruled instead. However after his death, Queen Kyra and her children were set aside by Elvar who took the throne as was the royal decree by their grandmother Vanya.

Since then things have been tense and all the forty kingdoms expect war between King Elvar and Prince Alexi Rey as both have had their destinies taken away from them for no just cause. Titania is the latest spark in this smoldering fire which would have caused one side to win easily. However Esmae actions cause the biggest tumult in this galaxy as she upsets everyone with her supreme archery skills. By declaring herself as a scion of a famous house, she wants nothing more than to return to Kali and reconcile with both sides of the family and learn why she was abandoned. Aided by the goddess Amba, since she was a child. Esmae knows no family and longs for recognition and love and with her archery skills she proves everyone that sometimes the smallest pawn cause the biggest shakeups.

I consider myself to be a Mahabharatophile, I’ve read almost every version of the Mahabharata since I first heard the epic of Mahabharata from my mother and grandmother. I was fascinated by the heroes and villains in it as I devoured the Amar Chitra Katha comics. Since then I’ve read the C. R. Rajagopalchari version, the original K. M. Ganguli translation as well as the recent Ramesh Menon versions. Also I’ve read and enjoyed Yuganta, Mrityunjay, & Parva. So you can understand why I was so excited by Sangu Mandanna’s SF-YA retelling. The story focuses on the central themes of the epic such as the reason for the conflict, the main archery rivalry between Karna and Arjun, and the meddling of the gods within mortal lives.

All of this and more is handled adroitly by Sangu Mandanna, she genderflips some roles such as Karna & Eklavya, merges several characters such as Yudhisthir and Arjun, Bheesma and Drona. She also mines several significant events from the epic such as the wax palace burning, the eye of the fish test, the city/palace of illusions (Indraprastha), etc. With Esmae, she takes the character of Karna and genderflips it but retains his magnanimous nature as well as his friendships, his generosity, and his amazing abilities. Here’s a breakdown of the characters who are strong facsimilies of the characters from the epic:

Esmae/Alexa Rey = Karna
Alexi Rey = Arjun
Max Rey = Suyodhan (also Duryodhan)
Arba (Bear) Rey = Bheem
Kyra Rey = Kunti
Cassela Rey = Pandu
Elvar Rey = Dhritarashtra
Guinne Rey = Gandhari
Sebastian Rickard = Amalgamation of Bheeshma and Drona
Darshan Karn = Amalgamation of Shikhandi and Drupad
Kirrin = Krishna
Selwyn = Shakuni
Hundred & One = Kauravas
The Blue Knights = Yadava warrior clans

These are the main characters who play many an important role in the story in both the books and also before the events of the first.

What I really enjoyed was the SF and epic mythology merging of the story. Beginning with events and characters to the inclusion of mythological beings such as Rakshasas, and Garudas and the Devas. Plus the author really let her imagination fly with the spaceship cities, the technological armor upgrades as well as the action sequences. Another cool feature is that the storyline isn’t a direct recreation of the Mahabharata epic but it utilizes several key points and characters while also allowing for the author to insert her twists and turns. With that we get a very different and enjoyable reading experience (I speak from a POV of a person who’s intimately acquainted with the epic). For those who have no idea, I expect every twist will be cool. The addition of the gods and the Hindu mythology were done syncretically and really gave me a thrill to read about (the stories of the origin of the gods, the seven celestial weapons, the Empty Moon and its mysteries, etc.)

The pace and the twists are done really well, the first book though while beginning slowly certainly catches up by the halfway mark and then gives us a very sound climax. The second book is even better as it starts off quickly from within its first chapters and then just goes full steam towards the end wherein it ends on quite a few shocking notes.

Lastly I would have to mention the characterization as with this being a YA book, there’s only so much one can do with complexity. However the author a wonderful job in showcasing all of these characters and their needs. Primary among them is Esmae with her burning anger, Alexi with his conflicted feelings, Max with his intelligence and steadfastness. I enjoyed reading about them but I wish the author had done more to portray why Esmae feels the rage that she has in her heart (in the original epic & Mrityunjaya, Karna is brilliantly humanized and we get to really feel for him). I also didn’t like the sidelining of Alexi & Abra (Bear) both of whom are based on Arjun & Bheem. These are formidable warriors who are equally great and have complex personalities as well. The author tries to capture Bear’s soft hearted nature with his fascination with honey cakes (Bheem was also supposed to be a master cook).

Alexi gets sidelined a lot and is made out to be a villain of sorts who does what he wants when he doesn’t get his way. I thought the author lost out on portraying him as an equally fascinating persona and hence leading up to the great clash between him and his sibling (foreshadowing the equally complex relationship & rivalry between Karna and Arjun). Lastly I was glad to see Max being shown as a wonderfully intelligent character who has his own reasons for being the way he is. In almost all versions of the Mahabharata, Suyodhan/Duryodhan is shown to be just evil and I never quite understood that. His friendship with Karna as well has his kingship and brotherly relations are very much understated. However the author cleverly illustrates why Esmae holds Max in such high regard and I loved what twists the author envisioned with his character arc.

Overall though most characters all seem very one-dimensional compared to the enigma that is Kyra Rey, as her actions have what set up the majority events of the story. Plus she almost never makes an appearance on the pages except at a very climatic point and even then refuses to be just a villain. I thought this was a masterstroke by the author and was very well done. There’s also the sentient ship Titania who gets a POV turn in the second book and I very much enjoyed its recollections and observations. I feel I’m being a bit harsh as this is a YA story and it can only get so complex especially when the source matter is possibly the greatest story ever told. I reiterate Sangu Mandanna does a terrific job of giving us a story that keeps the reader entertained, and yearning for more.

The only point that I didn’t enjoy was the romance that was inserted within the story, it is predictable and quite staple worthy of the YA genre and maybe that’s why it was present. I didn’t care much for it. I’m also not a typical YA reader so you have to take this specific observation with the necessary caveat (as I’m definitely not the target audience for it).

CONCLUSION: The Celestial series books are a wonderful amalgamation of YA, SF & the Mahabharata. I can safely vouch that such a unique combination has never been done before. Give Sangu Mandanna wholesome credit for giving full rein to her imagination and giving us readers such a wonderfully epic and twisted storyline. I can’t for book III of the Celestial Series.

NOTE: My thanks to Shealea for allowing me to participate in this blog tour. Checkout the rest of the blog tour for A House Of Rage And Sorrow over HERE.


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