I've really appreciated the growing number of #OwnVoices fantasies based on non-European folktales, mythologies and histories. It's great that publishers have finally woken up to the fact that kids need to see themselves and their cultures represented in the books they read. It's good for all of our brains to be exposed to different cultures and new ideas. And as a purely selfish reader, it means there are that many more interesting stories I have access to!
DasGupta has a great afterword in which she explains the various sources of her material: everything from Bengali folk tales to a beloved poet to the works of Einstein. The world she creates out of all this is fascinating: an interdimensional fun house of different lands populated by princes and monsters and stars (not to mention annoying talking birds).
Our heroine, however, is from New Jersey. Kiran doesn't believe in any of the stories her parents tell her, and she definitely doesn't believe that she's a princess. I thought her reaction to a slavering rakkhosh destroying her home and two princes on winged horses showing up to rescue her was realistic and age-appropriate: she's seriously pissed off! Sarcastic and uncommunicative prince Neel doesn't help matters, and the two bicker their way through the Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers trying to save Kiran's parents from a black hole and Neel's brother from a Demon Queen's curse.
I liked that there wasn't a single Big Bad to defeat: there are puzzles and riddles and monsters to battle, but the monsters had their own reasons for existing, and both Kiran and Neel have to face monstrous sides of their own natures. Blending mythology with astrophysics was ambitious and a little mind-bending—I didn't think it always worked, but I liked the dimension it added to the story (get it: dimension?).
I often get tired of the gross monsters that appeal to middle-grade readers, but this story had enough going on to keep my interest, and the rakkhosh were actually pretty funny. I cared about the characters and I believed in the awkward friendship between Kiran and Neel. There are two more books in the series, and I'm interested enough in the unique cosmology DasGupta has created and curious enough about what Kiran's going to do next that I will seek them out.
I'd really like to try Bengali food. I think this story resembles a typical Bengali meal, which (according to a quick google search) looks like it's presented very similarly to food I had in Nepal: different curried and fried vegetables and fish with a few chutneys and sauces arranged around plain rice. Many different flavours to cover the whole palate. (I really want to go back to India and eat!)
|By Sarmistha Bera - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40900761
Always in the Middle for Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday.