An arranged marriage where the couple hates each others’ guts and then gets to know each other under secret identites? Yes! I picked this up based on that premise and the read-alike comparisons in the blurb, thinking this would be an ownvoices Indian-inspired fantasy a la Tasha Suri and… it’s not.
“You sure you aren’t trying to kill me?”
“Never.” She smirks. “In front of all these witnesses.”
Adraa and Jatin, heirs to neighboring kingdoms, have been betrothed since they were kids. Neither remembers much about the other, besides the fact that Adraa lost her temper with Jatin and slapped him in the face at their first meeting. Ten years later, Jatin is finally returning home from school to start taking a more active role in running the kingdom with his father. But neither Adraa nor Jatin are looking forward to the formalization of their bethrothal – especially when a chase after a thief leaves “Kalyan,” supposedly one of Jatin’s guards and “Jaya,” a cage fighter and spy working for Adraa, collaborating to find the source of a smuggling ring. Neither realizes the other’s identity, but as their investigation continues and they grow closer to each other, how long can their secrets hold?
I liked the magic system, though it was at times a bit confusing. Certain segments of the population are Touched, which means they have magical abilities. The Touch starts as a small marking on each wrist and then grows up the person’s arm, and the length is commensurate with their magical ability. There are nine different varieties of magic, called fortes, which correspond to different colors and gods. For instance, pink is healing magic from Laeh, the goddess of healing, while red is from Erif, the god of fire. Adraa is different in that her Touch is only on one arm, which leaves her a bit defensive about her magic and her suitability to be the next ruler of Belwar.
And that leads in to my first criticism of the book. It read much younger than YA to me, with a very predictable plot and a very black and white morality. Belwar is small compared to the neighboring kingdoms, but it’s diverse, with a large Untouched (nonmagical) population. Of course, while the other kingdoms discrimate against those without certain types of magic or based on how many types a person can use, Belwar is a progressive utopia. And of course Adraa is a rani of the people, inventing something called firelight that she sells so cheaply that even the poorest people in the kingdom should be able to afford it. And when a friend is injured, she takes on an alternate identity – with the blessing of her future father-in-law – to infiltrate the criminal underworld of cage fighting. So, basically Batman. It was entertaining, sure, but it felt very unrealistic, and I think Adraa’s characterization suffered as a result.
“By Gods, this was winning. She had been winning the whole time. When I was nine I had wanted to impress her with a freeze spell. Naive me had wanted her to praise me, wanted her good opinion. But I’m a fraud compared with her. I only learn spells and recast them to perfection. She invented an entirely new one. I had never even thought of trying that.”
As for the other characters, I did like how quickly Jatin realized that he was, well, kind of a jerk to Adraa. Through all their letters exchanged over the past years, they’ve been competing to see who’s “winning” – that is, better at magic – than the other. Given that Jatin attended a prestigious academy along with other promising young royals while Adraa was homeschooled due to her one-armed Touch, he naturally assumes he’s better at magic than her. But she never mentioned inventing firelight or all the other work she does for her kingdom. He even admires her – as Jaya – bossiness, recognizing it as a natural tendency towards leadership.
“I can like her—blood, I’m even allowed to love her. I don’t need to squash the feelings or the thoughts that have bubbled to the surface ever since she saved that little boy in the street. What had I done in my life to make me this Gods-blessed lucky?”
What I didn’t like was that when he figured out that she was Adraa, he put off confronting her about it or coming clean about his own deception. At this point in the story, they both have pretty much fallen into insta-love with the other, but were under the impression they were betrothed to another person, which naturally leads to a lot of angst for both of them. Jatin’s relief when he realizes the person he’s in love with is the person he’s going to marry is overwhelming, but he somehow doesn’t comprehend that she could be feeling the same way and that he’s causing her further pain. When she finally finds out, she is angry and upset, but then she just lets it go. He respects her magic and leadership abilities, but he still feels like it’s OK for him to lie to her, and somehow she’s OK with that as well. I was beyond frustrated with how that was handled.
My main disappointment with the book, however, was even worse. This is not an ownvoices book, and I’m not an ownvoices reviewer for it, so take this next commentary with that in mind. It seemed very superficially Indian-inspired. The characters wear kurtas and saris and lehengas, Adraa has upma for breakfast, the leaders are maharajas and maharanis and… that’s it. The way the families interact, their culture, the magic, none of that felt Indian. It read like generic western fantasy with some ethnic window dressing, and nothing like the readalikes mentioned in the blurb.
Overall, I’d give this around 2.5 stars, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for ownvoices reviews.
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.