My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 400 pages
Release date: 4 September 2018
In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.
Raised alone and far away from her home on Kali, Esmae longs to return to her family. When the King of Wychstar offers to gift the unbeatable, sentient warship Titania to a warrior that can win his competition, she sees her way home: she’ll enter the competition, reveal her true identity to the world, and help her famous brother win back the crown of Kali.
It’s a great plan. Until it falls apart.
Do you know what happens when a pawn gets all the way across the board? She becomes a queen.
How do you package family drama, intrigue, betrayal, jealousy and all the other epic themes in the length of a YA novel? There’s no way I’d be able to do it, but apparently Sangu Mandanna can. A Spark of White Fire was awesome.
I knew from the moment I read an excerpt in the last edition of Publishers Lunch’s Buzz Books that this book would be one to watch out for. In the end it was even better than I expected. There’s something about a space setting that makes a story so much more epic, and in A Spark of White Fire Mandanna unleashes her imagination with celestial deities and spaceship kingdoms. As well she should, considering that the novel is a retelling of the Mahabharata. I’m not familiar with the Sanskrit epic, and in fact I can’t make head or tail of it even after skimming the Wikipedia page, but that’s ok. This is a great trilogy opener that stands on its own strength.
Honestly, this is such a unique world by YA standards. There are gods, but not the kind you’re used to. There are prophecies, but not the kind you like. There are villains to cheer for and heroes to hate. In essence, A Spark of White Fire is the something new you’ve been awaiting so long.
To be fair, I think if you spend more time than I did (virtually none) trying to puzzle out the prophecies and loopholes you’ll manage to predict at least part of the plot. Personally I think it’s a better idea to just sit back and enjoy like you would a magic trick. Half of the fun is being surprised.
A couple parts did break immersion for me. There’s the matter of the love interest, who exists in some form or another in 99% of YA novels and in at least half of them is recognisable as the love interest from the moment he or she first appears on the page. Sometimes not even there, since synopses like to hint at forbidden love etc. Unlike in many other aspects, A Spark of White Fire was not an exception here. Brooding attractive guy appears and is obvious love interest. Just one problem, he’s the protagonist’s long-lost cousin. So authors of YA, however can we solve this?? Surely even in today’s new, edgy YA we can’t write an actual incestuous romance.
No points for guessing how the little roadblock is resolved so they can get to kissing.
The other little issue bothering me is that in the distant distant future, humanity has regressed to being governed by absolute hereditary monarchies and is still somehow flourishing. Societies ruled by absolute monarchies don’t tend to have the economic and social success this novel gives them. I feel like A Spark of White Fire could have had instead semi-pluralistic societies with political ‘dynasties’, or constitutional monarchies with mostly powerless royalty. It’s not a big deal, just a small chink in worldbuilding that otherwise feels much more realistic than the YA norm.
I remember reading the Percy Jackson books years ago, seeing how all the prophecies unfolded in tragic and unexpected ways and appreciating Rick Riordan as a sneaky genius with his plotting. I’m a lot more cynical of a reader nowadays where YA is concerned. Still, that appreciation is exactly what I felt when Sangu Mandanna delivered her own rendition of that age-old theme where, despite or cruelly because of their efforts to escape, foolish mortals fall prey to fate.
The thing is, I don’t like stories fully dictated by fate. In fact I spent a while drafting a never published blog post on my hatred of the Chosen One syndrome. I love stories emphasising free will. So A Spark of White Fire shouldn’t have been my cup of tea. But it was, and it explored the effectiveness and futility of trying to subvert fate so beautifully. It’s simultaneously deeply tragic and self-aware. It recognises that sometimes you can’t win, only accept the least of several evils.
*Thanks to Sky Pony Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.