Author: Roshani Chokshi
Series: Pandava Quartet, #1
Publication date: March 27, 2018
Genre: middle grade, fantasy
My rating: 4/5 stars
This was a cute and enjoyable read, for sure, with a delightful voice, a feisty and salty protagonist who was a little too relatable, and so much mythological fun. Obviously the #OwnVoices take on Indian mythology was a strong point in its favor. Seriously, props to Rick Riordan for helping support authors from other cultures in getting their mythologies into stories to be published and loved as much as his own Percy Jackson was. He could have written those books himself, but instead he decided to step away and let #OwnVoices authors take the spotlight. But I digress–let’s start with the publisher’s blurb!
Twelve-year-old Aru Shah has a tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at school. While her classmates are jetting off to family vacations in exotic locales, she’ll be spending her autumn break at home, in the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, waiting for her mom to return from her latest archeological trip. Is it any wonder that Aru makes up stories about being royalty, traveling to Paris, and having a chauffeur?
One day, three schoolmates show up at Aru’s doorstep to catch her in a lie. They don’t believe her claim that the museum’s Lamp of Bharata is cursed, and they dare Aru to prove it. Just a quick light, Aru thinks. Then she can get herself out of this mess and never ever fib again.
But lighting the lamp has dire consequences. She unwittingly frees the Sleeper, an ancient demon whose duty it is to awaken the God of Destruction. Her classmates and beloved mother are frozen in time, and it’s up to Aru to save them.
The only way to stop the demon is to find the reincarnations of the five legendary Pandava brothers, protagonists of the Hindu epic poem, the Mahabharata, and journey through the Kingdom of Death. But how is one girl in Spider-Man pajamas supposed to do all that?
This month, I participated in a Middle-Grade May challenge, which is exactly what it sounds like: I read a bunch of MG books to fit a bunch of prompts, and overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved all of them. I feel like when I was the “target age” for middle-grade, I skipped pretty quickly from younger books to YA and didn’t read widely enough in the MG range, so now I’ve been reading a combination of older titles I never picked up (shockingly, I have only read the first Percy Jackson book!) and newer ones that I’ve been meaning to check out as well (including some recommended by kids I substitute-taught). Expect several of my upcoming reviews to also be of MG titles!
Anyway, on to the book itself! I loved how easily the story was able to skip and bounce through trial after trial, story after story, as the young heroines continued on their quest, packing in an astonishing amount of mythology-per-page. My knowledge of Hindu mythology is spotty–I’ve done some cursory research on it for classes before, but I only know some basic characters, not many stories–but even as someone with limited knowledge, Chokshi’s writing (and the charming commentary of assorted characters) made it easy to follow along, and even learn some new things along the way.
Speaking of Chokshi’s writing: this is an author who really knows how to craft a beautiful and immersive world for her stories to take place in. Her lyrical writing somehow fit seamlessly with Aru’s sometimes-childish antics, and her creativity was abundant (Exhibit A: the Night Market, a sort of magical bazaar where anyone can buy anything, was literally hidden inside of a Costco). The characters were memorable–Aru’s book-smart, often-terrified soul-sister Mini; the magical mounts of the gods including a seven-headed horse (!!!); and of course, Boo, the long-suffering talking pigeon with a mythical backstory of his own and a personality that in some ways reminded me of Zazu from The Lion King.
I know this book is part of Rick Riordan’s imprint, and yes, the Percy Jackson vibes were strong with this book, but in a good way! The whole accidentally-a-mythical-figure’s-descendant-crossing-the-country-on-a-quest deal will probably never get boring for me. I only had two complaints about the book as a whole. First, some of the humor was a little bit too childish for my liking, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it didn’t work for me. And second, there were a few parts that felt overly rushed, including a somewhat-confusing ending that is a perfect setup for a sequel but also left me vaguely unsatisfied.
As a whole: definitely would recommend this one if you’re looking for a light read in these distressing times, if you want to get your feet wet in non-western mythology without straight-up reading the Mahabharata, or if you’re just in the mood for a younger protagonist who still kicks some serious butt.