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The Star-Touched Queen is Roshani Chokshi’s first novel, and tells the story of Mayavati (or Maya), a young princess of Bharata who was born under (seemingly) ill-fated stars. Seen as cursed, her life in the serai or ladies' quarters is a series of insults and exclusion, save for the love of her younger sister, Gauri. On the eve of her betrothal, at which her father intends for her to commit suicide to further his political ambitions, Maya is whisked away by a young prince named Amar to his kingdom, Akaran. Confused by Amar’s familiarity and unsure of her place in the vast and seemingly uninhabited Akaran, Maya is shocked to learn that Amar is, in fact, the God of Death, and that she is queen, not of an unknown kingdom, but of Naraka, the kingdom of death. Still reeling from this revelation, she discovers that she is far more than a mere Princess of Bharata, and that her past is a secret that Amar plans to reveal only after the full moon. Her bewilderment allows an old friend-turned-foe, Nritti, to take advantage of her, and Maya must resolve her past (with the help of the horse-shaped pishacha, Kamala) and save Amar, regaining her position at his side and cementing their bond.

It’s a convoluted thing to review a book like The Star-Touched Queen, because the choice to straddle two worlds within the book is oddly mirrored in the realities of its reception. This is YA fantasy that sets itself at a very odd nexus of commercial fantasy, Hindu mythology and religion, Indian history, and North Indian culture, but aims itself very much at an audience largely or utterly unfamiliar with most of these. Fantasy retellings of Hindu mythology, such as Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy and Shatrujeet Nath’s Vikramaditya Veergatha series, currently pack the Indian book market, but the context for The Star-Touched Queen is different because the audience is different. Problematic as Tripathi and Nath’s stories are (and they really are), they’re largely written for an Indian audience familiar with these narratives and interested in the (often sexist) hypermasculinity peddled in those pages. It’s a bombastic extension of a familiar cultural narrative.

Here’s where it starts to get complicated. The book was originally brought to my attention as something to read by numerous SFF fans describing it as "diverse" fantasy specifically due to its grounding in Indian Hindu mythology and its author's being of Indian descent. I mention this because diversity in SFF is itself a really odd set of restrictions and ideas, and seems very much an idea constituted by markets dominated by the Global North despite any overt claim to expand beyond them, as this roundtable explains. For me, here in India, having a brown person write a fantasy romance novel that draws on Indian mythology isn’t actually "diverse" because that’s not at the margins of my world, that’s already its centre. In large part, this framing has its own consequences because it takes for its centre the publishing industry of the Anglophone Global North and makes these people and cultures a point in the margins. As a consequence, most readers of The Star-Touched Queen aren’t necessarily familiar with Indian mythology or culture beyond the colourful, gilded, often revisionist histories of North India made so popular by Sanjay Leela Bhansali movies.

But here’s the thing—The India and “Indian” mythology that this book (and a lot of the literature that uses “Indian” mythology as its base) provides is a version that eschews genuine historical diversity for Hindu-only histories, erases the realities of slavery and the caste system in India, and doesn’t account for how sexist, casteist, and classist these mythologies often already are. The choice to use the name "Bharata" in the framing of this narrative is historically charged as it is not only the name for India in Sanskrit, but the term itself is an ancient term drawn from the Hindu Puranas that describes the kingdom of the Indian subcontinent, separating it out from the rest of the world beyond in these texts. As such, "Bharata" in this narrative describes a fantasy kingdom, but also codes it very strongly with markers of Indian history. The sense of “Indian-ness” that’s constituted in The Star-Touched Queen therefore deliberately evokes links to a historical Indian past, and consequently its choice to paper over the complexity of caste and religion in its narrative feels genuinely reductive.

This is all far more problematic in the context of the current state of Indian politics, where the ruling right-wing party promotes the idea of “Hindutva,” or a homogenised, culturally Hindu understanding of Indian identity. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been fairly set on erasing the (often contested) secularism of the country by claiming an Indian historical past that is predominantly Hindu. In an effort to promote this further, they have been attempting to insert these revisionist histories into educational policy. When seen in this light, Hindu-heavy fantasy-mythology revisions feel far less innocent. The fact that not one of the characters in Chokshi's book was coded as anything other than Hindu felt very much a part of this erasure; the fact that the book talked about royalty and a serai but didn’t feel any obligation to mention the systems of caste and class that would keep them working are a continuation of the process by which those histories are deliberately made invisible. Intentional or not, this book plays into a very specific understanding of what a reader needs to know about its Hinduist world. For a reader in India, it’s the sort of fantasy fiction that’s incredibly rose-tinted; an upper-class and upper-caste narrative that never considers the reality of the histories behind these myths.

It’s important to note that Maya’s apparently feminist narrative is one that is already entangled with caste and class despite the erasure of their representation. To paraphrase a much smarter friend, the eliding of caste narratives in India is as much about the preservation of hierarchy as it is the assumption of false equality, and both of these are present in contemporary feminist struggles in India. The feminism of the The Star-Touched Queen relies on Maya's being freed from the patriarchal politics of Bharata to assume her role as queen in Naraka in the first half of the book, and consequently finding herself and her true power in the second half of the book within her roles as a sadhvi (a holy woman who has renounced the world and its ties) and later, as queen once more in Naraka. Yet, within the context of a fantasy world that deliberately draws on Indian history, Maya’s ability to switch roles between that of a sadhvi and queen is only possible due to her original position as upper-caste. Maya’s rightful return to the throne is predicated upon her being coded with markers of royalty even in her role as sadhvi, of being capable of entering into these various places and palaces because of the implicit recognition of this implied wise stature (itself coded as upper-caste due to learning being largely positioned as the province of Brahminism) by the other characters involved.

At the same time, the fact that this is a book that’s aimed at a largely Anglophone audience from the Global North means that the book unwittingly plays into the persistent exoticization and mysticism of India in fantasy lit. This is not to say that Indian culture shouldn’t be included in SFF, but more that the manner of this inclusion is something that needs constant engagement—it’s all too easy to devolve into orientalism while disclaiming this as purely a fantasy. A well-known example of this nature is George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series which claims to be set in a fantasy world while simultaneously being celebrated for its references to European history. Implicit within this history are markers and themes of colonialism and orientalism, which are often created within the series as heroic when wielded by white characters, often specifically white women characters. Descriptions of the Dothraki and the cities and people of Qarth, Yunkai, Astapor, and Meereen in the books abound with racist markers that repeat centuries of European “civilising” discourse within this historical fantasy setting. And while Daenerys Targaryen is celebrated as a fan favourite in the HBO adaptation of the series, it’s visibly a celebration of her role as a civilising white saviour coming to these cities filled with people of colour to free their people and slaves. She is positioned as the embodiment of white military feminism that colonises as protection (in her role as Mother of Dragons) as well as later struggles with the seeming barbarity of the people she has chosen to “save” who resist her attempts at replacing their cultures with her own. Her armies are peopled with brown characters who “choose” her as a rightful queen, implicitly displaying the superiority of this white character over these nameless and otherwise persecuted brown hordes.

While Chokshi’s work functions very differently from Martin's, there remains an implicit cultural hierarchy that does come into play. As my editor pointed out, it’s easy to want to excuse the lack of nuance because Anglophone fantasy is full of books whose relationship to Europe is presented similarly to this book’s relationship to India—and these books are often given a pass for presenting Europe as a white, mono-religious space. But this is then making a choice as a reader to accept and accommodate the erasure of (often marginalised) communities and cultures without raising these issues with authors and asking for better. Much as recent readers and viewers of Game of Thrones have chosen to ask for better of Martin and HBO and other creators of SFF, it’s worth noting that readers of what gets labelled diverse fiction are able to question whether these works, despite good intentions, may promote or engage in similar structures of bias and disempowerment. We’re not asking for anything we wouldn’t otherwise be asking for; the only difference is that the pool of writers and books within this is a lot smaller, so that both the criticism itself and the backlash to be satisfied with what we get seem more weighted.

Both Chokshi and reviewers of this book appear to celebrate the use of multiple Indian Hindu myths, yet this cultural diversity is still described by many reviewers (as well as by the author) as a version of the Hades and Persephone myth. Despite its emphasis on Hindu culture, the narrative appears equally immersed in fantasy myths from the Global North with shades not only of Hades and Persephone, but also aspects of the Cupid and Psyche myth—Amar only truly spends time with her at night in their bed and refuses to explain his reasoning despite it having no real bearing on the outcome of his spell to restore Maya’s immortality. Mixing myths across cultures is fruitful, and it’s impossible in a postcolonial and globalised world not to have these multiple flourishing colonial remnants and influences melded into our own narratives, but the question remains who these narratives are being created for, what emphasis is placed on which aspects of these stories, and, increasingly, how these stories are then discussed in the public sphere. In some sense, this is part of the issue—to create a narrative that is understandable/ accessible to readers in the Global North, the book must conform to a familiar myth (to its Anglophone audience). Those of us who grew up with these myths don’t seem to be the book’s target audience. It’s not as bad as Martin’s books that have me only find myself in their pages as a savage in need of a civilising white woman to whom to devote my life, but it’s not necessarily centring me in this experience either, despite the use of characters that are coded as South Asian.

The Star-Touched Queen struggles through its first half to maintain the mystery of who Amar is. Despite the fact that Maya is introduced to the reader as extremely well-versed in this universe's version of Indian mythology, she fails to recognise him as Yama, God of Death, despite the fact that this otherworldly prince rides a water buffalo and wears a noose on one hand—two of his best-known defining characteristics. It’s the sort of thing that anyone with a glancing interest in Hindu mythology would know, let alone someone immersed in the culture. As a result, nearly every Indian friend who read it spent the first half of the book screaming at Maya. The kingdom of Akaran is literally Naraka spelt backwards! Her husband has a water buffalo as his steed! It’s really not hard! This whole section of the book simply isn’t written for us because we know the mythology Chokshi is working from, and we don't need the two-hundred-odd pages it took Maya to catch up. That Maya then believes Nritti’s tale over Amar’s despite the fact that she knows he is Yama, is the Dharma Raj, is the keeper of justice and balance, is mind-bogglingly foolish. If forced to believe a tale told either by the Dharma Raj or some random lady in a mirror, you’d better believe I’d pick him.

It’s obvious that the book requires this melodramatic twist in order to lead into the next part and have Maya resolve her past and choose her future, but it’s laughable from the point of view of the mythology itself. This is what I mean by this book not being written for me despite being presented as representative of my world—I don’t need a hundred pages of carefully paced explanation, and I don’t understand Maya’s choices because Maya is supposed to be as knowledgeable as I am about (this world's equivalent of) the Hindu pantheon, and her shocked and overdone reaction at discovering she’s married to Amar/Yama with “death in her bed” is excessive. This isn’t how someone who knows who Yama is would act; it simply doesn’t line up.

By contrast, the shorter second half of the book, in which Maya discovers she’s the Yamuna, works far better as a mystery—significantly, this section is closer to pure fiction. Though this reworking implies that either the author doesn’t know that the Yamuna is named for the goddess Yami (Yama’s twin sister in the Rig Veda in Hindu mythology) and invokes her incarnation, or she’s deliberately presented us with carefully cloaked incest. Either way, I cackled my way through the end of the book. YA melodramatic pseudo-incest? It’s almost like an unexpected homage to Cassandra Clare.

Despite all these factors, I did enjoy the book. I really enjoyed the visual descriptions of Amar since I’m weak when it comes to men in sherwanis (though he really could have been better fleshed out as a character), and Maya’s relationship with Kamala was really fun. I liked that Maya had to go back and resolve her past in order to assure herself that she hadn’t left something undone—it felt like she was working to achieve mukti (ascension) so she could be freed from the cycle of rebirth and could return to her immortal life in Naraka. In terms of Hindu beliefs, that worked really well, and the fact that the book didn’t forcibly spell this out made it far more enjoyable. I loved that Amar and Maya’s (as Yama and Yami) disagreement over the course of justice managed to be simultaneously realistic and over-the-top. It felt very much like a deliberate evocation of Ram and Sita’s relationship, though fortunately without the misogyny that underlies much of the Ramayan. For example, the section where Maya as Yami is tested by the gods seems similar to the moment where Sita, having been kidnapped by Ravan, is forced to prove herself as pure to the world and its gods by agni pariksha (trial by fire). And her choice to leave following that feels much like Sita’s final choice in the Uttara Kanda portion of the Ramayan. Sita, unwilling to have Ram doubt her any further, prays for the Earth to release her and thus returns to the Earth that is her mother. Maya (or Yami’s) choice to leave is less the result of sexist thought on the part of her partner, and more of a disagreement between seeming equals, and this worked so well. I really enjoy rewritings that undo previously problematic narratives or ideas, and this did some of that here.

I’m still on the fence about the way Maya's sister Gauri’s narrative was set up. To me, it feels like it’s either evoking the spectre of or meant to be an homage to Rani Lakshmibai (Jhansi ki Rani). Yet so often narratives about Rani Lakshmibai elide the work of the various women of the Durga Dal who helped her, such as Jhalkari Bai, Mandar, Sundari Bai, Mundari Bai, and Moti Bai. These women are often erased from this narrative not simply because the focus is on Rani Lakshmibai’s role as a powerful woman who took up the sword, but also because they were lower caste and their taking up of weapons was not viewed as suitably dramatic. The fact that Chokshi’s narrative in The Star-Touched Queen is blithely unaware of caste or class, and has what feels like a mono-religious Hindu identity, means that I have little faith in her ability to create that narrative as one of actual nuance when it comes to the Indian-coded “Bharata” experience. Therefore, when Gauri’s sequel was hinted at in this book, I squinted at it with trepidation and mild annoyance.

Honestly, I’m not sure where I stand on the book as a whole. It felt like the sort of book that I’m not supposed to think very deeply about—which can be a pro or a con, depending on the sort of day I’m having. I definitely enjoyed large parts of it because it’s a light, trope-heavy romance that has myths and an ethos that I recognise. At the same time, I feel quite strongly about the book’s erasure of the Indian subcontinent’s secular history and its refusal to build caste, religion, or any form of social nuance into its world. Although I don’t regret reading it, I doubt I’d reread it.

Based in India, Samira spends most of her time explaining Nicolas Cage movies to her father and making bad puns. In her everyday life, she’s an academic. At night, she watches terrible TV and posts blurry pictures of her cat. It’s a life.
Current Issue
27 Mar 2023

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