A House of Rage and Sorrow
Note: This review contains minimal spoilers for the first book A Spark of White Fire. The YA SFF trilogy must be read in order. If this review piques your interest, then I recommend that you start with the previous book.
If someone asked me what the happiest event of my life has been up to this point, I’d point to the moment when my parents decided to leave Asia and relocate our family to the United States. And if someone asked me what the saddest event of my life has been up to this point, I’d point to the moment when my parents decided to leave Asia and relocate our family to the United States. It’s a memory drenched in excitement and wistfulness. As proud as I am to be an American, I’m also keenly aware of diverging timelines and missed opportunities. Somewhere out there, maybe in a parallel universe, there’s another Aarya who never traversed oceans and instead remained secure in her identity as an Indian — as someone who can claim authority to her heritage.
But I’m not that Aarya. I’ve deeply struggled in the tug-of-war of cultural divides — with my mother, with my grandparents, and with myself. There have been days where I’ve bitterly disowned my roots and vowed to live my life as only an American, erasing out the Indian and the dash. There have been days where I’ve admitted that my wish to feel more connected to my still-in-India cousins. And there have been days where I’ve felt like an imposter because I can’t follow the Skype conversation conducted in Tamil. I’ve always envisioned identity as something a person is anchored by, whether it’s by food, language, or family.
For many years, it seemed as though I didn’t have that anchor. I can understand some Tamil, but can hardly speak a word because my parents only spoke in English to improve our fluency for school. I lived in a town where there were only five other South Asians in my graduating class, and none were Tamilian. My parents aren’t performative when it comes to faith, and the only evidence of any religion in our home was the small white cabinet with idols, including a Shiva linga and a smiling Ganesha on top of a mouse. My mom cooked mouth-watering South Indian food, but that hardly seemed enough to anchor me when I was so determined to “become” an American.
Years later, I realized how wrong I was. I did have an anchor and it was Hindu mythology. As a child, I was obsessed with Amar Chitra Kathas, a popular comic collection that broke down myths, fables, and history for children. I was obsessed with the series, starstruck by the colorful panels and the larger-than-life deities. My very favorite comic was the three-volume set of the Mahabharata. I read it so many times that the box finally tore after constant movement from the shelf to my desk. Once I memorized it word-for-word, I watched the epic 1988 Mahabharata television adaptation (a whopping 94 hour-long episodes). In college, I took a freshman writing seminar called “The Great Epic of India,” where I finally read the original epic in translation (all 1.8 million words of it! I didn’t read much romance that semester). It was the first time where I’d been in a majority-South Asian classroom.
You see, mythology is the one aspect of my culture that doesn’t make me feel “lesser” or like a sham. I can’t speak Tamil with fluency. I don’t know how to perform many religious rituals. I can’t cook without burning something. I can’t tie a sari by myself. The list goes on and on. But my love and knowledge for Hindu mythology is an anchor that can never be tossed away. I may not be able to teach my children my mother tongue or cook them dosa/sambar, but I can share my 300+ Amar Chitra Katha collection in the hopes that they’ll love it as much as I do.
My review so far has been a long-winded way of saying the obvious: I freaking love the Mahabharata. I’ve consumed it across a dozen formats, it’s intimately tied to my identity, and I’ve written pages of literary analysis about it. And when I discovered that Sangu Mandanna was writing a SFF YA trilogy billed as “Mahabharata in space,” my heart stopped and splintered into contradicting emotions. Excitement that someone was finally twisting our beautiful, knotty, and epic story into something new and magical. Fear that it wouldn’t be true to the original. Dread that I wouldn’t love it.
My fears were for nothing. Both A Spark of White Fire and A House of Rage and Sorrow are absolute perfection. Intricately plotted, respectful and diverging to the source material, and a master-class in pacing. Time didn’t seem to pass while I was reading; I looked at the clock after finishing the first book and was shocked that it was four hours later. They’re the kind of books where you trip into the pages and never want to fall out. I actually let out a scream after finishing the second book, utterly furious that I would have to wait until 2020 for the final installment.
First: the world-building is similar to a space opera with galaxy travel, spaceships, and planets with distinct cultures. So it does have a slight Star Trek vibe, but I’d argue that it’s more comparable to Star Wars with the family melodrama. I’d classify the series as “fantasy in space:” the books are technically set in space, but it feels like a fantasy novel with the presence of deities and mythological/magical elements. I’ve never read anything quite like it, but I loved it.
Second: there is a small but satisfying romantic element. As the third book hasn’t been published yet, I can’t promise that there’ll be a HEA. But I am very optimistic and hopeful for a happy ending on the romantic thread. If my hopes are dashed, I’ll be in mourning this time next year and vowing to never read outside the Romance genre ever again.
Third: this series is very much inspired by and not a straight-up retelling. If you’re familiar with the epic, don’t expect every character or plot point to be regurgitated. It takes inspiration from the familial conflict (two sides of cousins at odds over the kingdom rulership) and cleverly goes its own way while paying homage to the source material.
Don’t worry if you know nothing about the epic: you’ll miss some nuances and allusions, but you’ll be able to understand the plot perfectly. I’ve gotten several friends hooked on the series and they’ve confirmed this. Being familiar with the original material actually hindered my experience because I would incorrectly predict plot points. In one memorable example, I panicked for a good four chapters because I was shipping two characters who are blood relations in the epic, but it turned out that one of them is adopted in this retelling (This pairing is basically Karna/Duryodhana fanfiction. If you know what I’m talking about, this is the point where you should be one-clicking).
I should actually talk about the premise at some point, shouldn’t I? There’s a planet called Kali and it’s torn apart by family warfare. A generation ago, there were two sons of the king. The older son Elvar was blind and the younger son Cassel became king as he was considered to be more fit to rule. Years pass and both sons have their own families (Elvar adopts his wife’s orphaned nephew Max and Cassel supposedly only has two sons, Alexi and Bear). When Cassel dies, the kingdom is thrown into disarray over the question of inheritance. Alexi wants his dead father’s throne, but Elvar is determined to seize the throne as his rightful inheritance. He stages a coup, exiles his nephews and sister-in-law, and sends the kingdom into turmoil.
At the start of A Spark of White Fire, the two sides are in early preparations for war. Only there’s a big wrench: our heroine Esmae is the secret twin sister of Alexi and is ready to reveal her identity to the galaxy. She’s been in hiding on another planet ever since her mother gave her away at birth. At a competition to win the sentient and all-powerful spaceship Titania, Esmae steps out from the crowd and beats her twin to fire an arrow at a mechanical fish suspended from the ceiling. Her win sends shockwaves throughout the galaxy and completely changes the political dynamics. Who will she support? Does she have a right to rule? Are her most hated enemies (King Elvar and his son — very much not blood-related to Esmae — Max) really that evil? Her perspective completely changes during the course of the first book.
By the time A House of Rage and Sorrow begins, Esame has chosen a side and is embittered in hate and vengeance. The girl who disavowed violence has transformed into a murderous warrior. It’s an emotional and difficult journey to see Esmae wage war against family. There is no winning or “good/bad” guys. This is family warfare, and it’s messy as hell. No one — including the eventual winner — will escape unscathed. Even if one side kills the other side, they’ll still end up grieving the loss of a loved one. If you know anything about the Mahabaratha, you’ll understand that this is an accurate representation of the epic.
I’ve seen reviews complaining that the books don’t seem immersed in Indian culture. Here’s my take: having elephants, mehendi, and arranged marriages aren’t the only markers of “Indian culture” in a book. This book may seem devoid of Indian culture if you’re expecting descriptions of mouth-watering paneer or glittery saris. But Indian culture is made up of more than those descriptions. The Celestial Trilogy is an homage that I’ve rarely seen in Western media, one devoted entirely to an epic unknown to most people in the United States. Just because a reader may not be able to appreciate the “Indianness” of this series doesn’t change the fact that A House of Rage and Sorrow is a magnificent, evocative, and heartbreaking homage to one of the most important literary traditions in India.
I’m going to engage in some mythology nerdery for a second, so I apologize if you don’t understand this next bit. I am so freaking impressed with how this series challenges superficial perceptions of the epic. If someone’s only exposure to the mythology is comics and the occasional TV episode, they might neatly categorize sides into “good” and “evil:” the Pandavas are unilaterally good, the Kauravas are unilaterally bad, Krishna is a savior who only wants to help the good guys, etc. But if you dig more deeply into the original epic, those binary perceptions are disproven. After reading the epic in translation, I argued with my grandmother, claiming that Krishna was a malevolent figure whose primary goal was to cause chaos and to depopulate the world. She told me to shut my mouth and stop being sacrilegious. This may not have been the smartest argument that I’ve ever started.
Mandanna plays with these superficial perceptions all the time. The blue-skinned trickster deity Krishna/Kirrin’s schemes have a notable tilt toward malevolence and unfairness. I was so pleased that Karna/Esmae took the rightful place as the book’s protagonist since Karna is the most fascinating character in the epic. I cackled when the book leaned into Kunti/Kyra’s evilness. The woman gave away Karna/Esmae as a baby and then chose her other kids over Karna/Esmae — how is she not the most evil character in the story? The book amps up the selfishness of Arjuna/Alexi and his family to the nth degree, leading the reader to believe that they’re the villains (they’re the “good guys” in the epic). And they are, until they aren’t. Things aren’t that binary, no matter what the book tricks you into believing. It’s utterly brilliant, and I want to reread the series to discover any more subtle nuances that I missed on my first read.
I could write 10000+ words about all the allusions and nods to the Mahabharata, but I’ll stop before I confuse you even more. The Celestial Trilogy is an engaging, intricate, and brilliant space opera rooted in one of the most important literary traditions of India. Everyone should read it and be prepared to cry. I apologize in advance for all the tissues you’re going to waste.