ARC Review: Sons of Darkness by Gourav Mohanty

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Game of Thrones meets Mahabharata and Ramayan.

SOME BALLADS ARE INKED IN BLOOD.

Bled dry by violent confrontations with the Magadhan Empire, the Mathuran Republic simmers on the brink of oblivion. Krishna and Satyabhama have put their plans in motion within and beyond the Republic’s blood-soaked borders to protect it from annihilation. But they will soon discover that neither gold nor alliances last forever.

They are however not alone in this game.

Mati, Pirate-Princess of Kalinga, has decided to mend her ways to be a good wife. But old habits die hard, especially when one habitually uses murder to settle old scores. Brooding but beautiful Karna hopes to bury his brutal past but finds that destiny is a miser when it comes to giving second chances. The crippled hero-turned-torturer Shakuni limps through the path of daggers that is politics only to find his foes multiply, leaving little time for vengeance.

Their lives are about to become very difficult for a cast of sinister queens, naive kings, pious assassins and ravenous priests are converging where the Son of Darkness is prophesied to rise, even as forgotten Gods prepare to play their hand. 

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CW: gore, violence, rape during war/marital rape, casteism

When I first saw the cover reveal of this book, the immediate feeling was that I was upset I didn’t know a Mahabharata inspired fantasy novel was coming out soon, that too by a mainland Indian author. And the second feeling was how interesting the idea sounds and how cool the cover was. I was very very excited that I got an advance copy and I’m so happy that this turned out to live upto my expectations.

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First things first, the comp title of this book is Game of Thrones and the author also is definitely writing in a dark/grimdark fantasy space which is something I’m not quite familiar with. It usually isn’t to my taste but I wasn’t gonna let that stop me from reading this book. And it definitely took me a while to get used to the huge cast of characters, the immense brutality and violence, the epic scope of the world, and the liberal use of the word “whore” which I’m still not a fan of. But despite the expansive nature of this story, I didn’t feel confused because it’s still familiar ground and I enjoyed making comparisons with what I know of the original epic. The pacing might feel like it’s slow and there’s conversations happening which you are not sure where they’ll lead to, but situations evolve very quickly and things accelerate from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye. There were many things I never saw coming and I enjoyed this unpredictable nature of the story. The magic system is alluded to and we only see little glimpses of it but that seemed like a lot of fun (almost reminded me of the talismans that Wei Wuxian writes in the air in the MDZS adaptations), and I can only hope we’ll have more magic in the sequel. The way the author kept a little essence of the original characters from the Mahabharata here but also drastically changed their personalities is also something I found very fascinating and I’m interested to see how much more troubles they are all gonna encounter in the future.

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I do read adult fantasy a lot these days but I’ve truly not encountered a book with so many POVs in a long while. I think I lost count of how many we have here. But naturally I gravitated towards Krishna instantly. He is a strategic kingmaker who has already thought through many many moves ahead of his opponents and is fairly confident of achieving his goals. But sometimes this surety of his becomes his bane because he has overlooked some very unexpected scenarios and unpredictable people. I really liked him even though he could be a bit too callous and calculated to get his way, but that didn’t really stop me from wanting to know more of his story. He is perfectly complemented by Satyabhama who is a warrior and can be slightly impulsive, but is also strong and brave and compassionate enough to save many young girls in unfortunate circumstances. The only thing I didn’t like was probably that Satya exudes the “not like other girls” vibe a lot which I’m not that much of a fan of. Nevertheless, she is admirable and mostly her straightforwardness is out of place in this world full of cunning masters.

I think the author took the original Shakuni and dialed it up a 100, so his character here is fascinating because you think you know what he wants but you are never sure whom he will sacrifice at the altar of his desires. We don’t get any Pandava or Kaurava POVs and I think that was a very cool choice because we only get hints about the kind of people they are and it’ll be exciting to see where their stories will go next. It’s Karna whom we get to follow in detail and he was everything I expected him to be. He is a warrior at heart and is resolved not to live within the confines of caste and society, rise up based on his own virtues and skills and hopefully destroy the discriminatory caste system on the way. But he can also be naive and too trusting because he is honest in his dealings and can’t see other’s cunning plans. I find that it’ll be difficult to survive in this world for him and only see more dreadful days ahead.

On the other side, we have characters like Mati and Shishupal and more who are pretty insignificant in the original epic but are formidable in their own ways here. Mati is a pirate princess and a force to reckon with, who has plans of her own and won’t let any man undermine her. Shishupal on the other hand wants to be far away from all the fighting because he is disgusted by the violence but unfortunately finds himself in the middle of the melee. I think he was the only person I found to be reasonable in the whole cast of characters and that was a fun surprise. Ekalavya’s glee for anything violent and Kalyavan’s naivete combined with his invincibility in war were also other interesting but not always comfortable aspects of the story. There are many other characters who also left an impression on me, especially Satya’s girls who seem like strong fighters but ultimately are just young girls who have no choice and find some strength in their sisterhood; and Draupadi who is unsure of her place in this world because it’s always others making choices for her and never anything that she truly wants.

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In the end, I can only say I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from this book but I definitely liked whatever has happened so far. This debut will definitely impress readers of the grimdark fantasy genre, and I’m sure the lifelong Mahabharata lovers like me will also find this inspired tale fascinating, if a lot more morally grey than the original. The impressive world building, the huge cast of characters who are both familiar and different, and the hint of magic that’s coming next, along with some prophecies of doom and oracles and other worldly beings all made for a very exciting (albeit a bit huge) story and I’m so looking forward to see what’s gonna happen next.

5 star

PS: Thank you to the author and BookSirens for providing me with the advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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