I was not too impressed with The Conch Bearer, but I checked out the sequel because I was curious if Divakaruni would undo the WTF ending of the former (no), and because the sequel had such an intriguing premise: Anand is transported back to Mughal times!

I liked this much more than The Conch Bearer, though mostly for the same reasons I liked what I did like of that: the atmosphere is fantastic, and I was more interested in the setting. Also the plot, though not what I’d call startling, was much less clichéd, some of the magic was pretty cool, and the ending wasn’t bizarre.

When Anand’s mentor disappears, Anand borrows the magic conch and goes to the rescue, ending up in a ruined palace in the jungle listening to some evil dude info-dumping his evil plotting to a jinn. Anand leaps through a magic mirror to escape, and lands in the court of Haider Ali (an actual historic figure.) There he finds himself in the body of a servant boy, his mentor impersonating an elephant trainer, his pal Nisha amnesiacally inhabiting the body of Haider Ali’s niece, and the evil dude plotting away.

The characterization is simple at best, but the vivid sensual detail makes you feel like you’re there at that court with Anand, pulling a heavy punkah in the stifling heat and longing for a sip of the prince’s fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. The effect is a bit like watching paper dolls against a real background. There is a knack for characterization in children’s books, and Divakaruni doesn’t have it. (Her adult books which I’ve read don’t have this problem.)

There's also a failure to think through one of the premises. It was never explained whether Anand and Nisha were spirits inhabiting real (past) people's bodies, or whether they were in their own bodies and everyone's memories had changed so they thought Nisha and Anand always been there. This is a big omission, since it becomes a serious question whether Nisha will stay. I would have liked to know whether her staying would change history (since she hadn't existed before) or if it wouldn't because she'd be taking over the body of a real historical person (poor person!)

Though there’s a moment near the end when I nearly flung the book across the room, it turned out to be a false alarm. The ending did not make me boggle in a bad way after all.

You can read this without reading the first book, as Anand recaps its entire plot in the Mirror of Fire and Dreaming. In fact, he does so twice.
A children’s fantasy set in modern India.

12-year-old Anand’s Kolkata family was happily middle-class until his father disappeared, his sister went catatonic, and the family sank into poverty. Anand had to drop out of school and work for a mean tea-stall owner.

But when he gives his last food to an old man, he is pulled into the old man’s quest to return a magic talking conch to a legendary brotherhood of healers. Accompanied by the old man and a homeless girl, Anand goes on a very traditional quest, complete with pursuing villain, magical obstacles, and powerful but obnoxious forces for good that keep setting up tests to pass.

The best part of this novel for me was the vividly evoked settings: the flavors of the food, the smell of the air, the discomfort of the journey. The characters are simple and the plot, if you’ve read a few childrens’ fantasy quest novels, was extremely predictable. However, I am no longer ten. I would recommend this for anyone looking for fantasy with POC protagonists (all the characters are Indian) for the eight-to-twelve set, with one caveat:

I regret to criticize the ending for being startling, given that predictability was my main problem with the rest of the story. But there is a middle ground between predictable and WTF.

They did what why? REALLY? )

Buy at Amazon: The Conch Bearer (Brotherhood of the Conch)
A retelling of my favorite epic, the Mahabharata, from the point of view of Draupadi who here goes by another of her names, Panchaali. For those who don't know the story already, Panchaali is a princess who marries the five Pandava brothers and proceeds to live a rather put-upon life; her attempted stripping by the Pandavas' rivals is the immediate cause of the great war between them.

I have no idea how this book comes across if you're not already familiar with the story, and I am very curious about that. Please report if you fit into that category. (I am especially curious how you felt about the Panchaali/Karna thing; I couldn't tell if it worked for me because of what was actually in the text, or because I was projecting what I already knew about him.)

I think this might well be a good introduction to the story. It definitely tells the whole thing, but in very short form and in excellent prose.

My favorite parts were the ones in which Divakaruni brings more of her own ideas and interpretations to the story. I liked the beginning of the novel, which focues on Panchaali's childhood and young adulthood, better than the later parts, in which Panchaali is only present in her own reflections on events which mostly concern other people. I could have happily read a novel which ended at her marriage, in fact. Once the war begins, Divakaruni proceeds with more of a standard retelling than the re-imagining she began with, and since I've read a lot of re-tellings, that's less interesting to me.

Some of the more notable additions and interpetations are that Panchaali is secretly in love with Karna (I must say that I loved this); there's also a lot of attention given to her special relationship with Krishna, especially at the beginning, which I also enjoyed. I had a bit of a problem with the very modern-sounding way in which she expressed feminist sentiments - not a problem with the feelings themselves, but that they were phrased in a way that felt too contemporary to me.

I would have also liked to see more emotional range, especially later on. This may be my interpretation imposing itself, but I always thought that Draupadi had very high highs and very low lows. Here, she's never really happy with her husbands, and never really glories in battle and revenge - she already knows the war is futile and revenge won't bring her happiness before the war even begins. I would have liked to see more joy and ferocity, in addition to frustration, unhappiness, and resignation.

I appreciated the moments of humor early on ("Something always seems to go wrong at a swayamvara") and would have liked a little more of it later. Okay, maybe not at Kurukshetra, but it seemed like no one ever laughed once Panchaali got married, except for the catastrophic moment in the Palace of Illusions when Duryodhan falls into the pool.

I definitely enjoyed seeing Divakaruni's interpretation of the characters (I especially loved her Veda Vyasa, and her alternately very human and otherworldly Krishna, especially as he was early on) and the clever way she juggled a truly dizzying array of characters and events. Overall, I liked it, but I would have liked to see less of Kurukshetra and more of Panchaali.

Buy it from Amazon: The Palace of Illusions: A Novel

ETA: As per conversation in comments, I have added more links so you can buy other versions of the story on Amazon!

The Great Indian Novel. Wild, funny, irreverent remix mashing up the Mahabharata with much more recent Indian history. Probably requires at least some prior familiarity with both the original and the Indian Independence Movement.

The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering: Vol 1,v.2: A Modern Rendering: 1 and The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Vol 2. Er. This really is worth the price. A sexy, lush, sometimes overwritten, but always vivid and involving retelling. If amazon doesn't work, abebooks.com should.

Mahabharata. A less modern style, but one of the most emotionally engaging versions I've come across. If your heart doesn't break for her Karna, you probably don't have one. I bet abebooks.com has a cheaper copy than amazon.


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