Princess Amrita of Shalingar has it made. Her wealthy kingdom of Shalingar is ruled by her compassionate father, and she’s surrounded by kind people who love her more than anything. That is until Emperor Sikander from the distant empire of Macedon demands her hand in marriage in exchange for peacefully taking control of Shalingar. At first Amrita agrees to the scheme, but when all hell breaks loose she finds herself on the run from Sikander.
But she’s not alone. Joining her is a teenage oracle, Thala, enslaved and drugged for most of her young life. Together, Thala and Amrita set off for the Library of All Things, a mythical place where they can both rewrite their destinies. The journey is long and arduous, but they must not fail. The fate of the world rests on their shoulders.
The Library of Fates is epic in scope yet intimate in tone. It was so refreshing to have a white emperor framed as an evil invader rather than an awe-inspiring figure of manhood. Too often fantasy is set from a Eurocentric perspective, and by skewing the perspective away from that it changes the whole meaning of Sikander’s presence. Now it’s not a story about conquest but invasion. Sikander isn’t the grand emperor uniting the world under one rule but a power-mad bully Shalingar must stand up to. Just as delicious was all the Indian mythology and culture. Unfortunately I don’t know much about either of those topics, so I can’t comment on it too deeply, but suffice it to say I loved almost all of it.
Amrita’s world is lush and covers territory we don’t often get to explore in fantasy. Even though the narration can get bogged down at times with purple prose and clunky dialogue, it was a treat the way Khorana used Amrita to describe the world. Khorana’s attention to detail is impeccable, and everything about it made me want to step inside the book and let Amrita give me a guided tour. The descriptions are so vivid I could practically smell the jasmine in Amrita’s garden.
Every now and then, a merchant caravan traveled down the road too, drawn by horses and camels, large burlap satchels hanging off their flanks. The ones leaving Ananta carried bags of tea, indigo, spices. Those coming in toward Ananta held reams of colorful silk shining in the sun—reds and indigos, oranges and greens. The men and women on these caravans wore beautiful robes made of the same silk.
Bedouins carrying all of their belongings on mules marched past us, their faces weathered and creased like stories told again and again. In their hands, they held mirrored patchwork bindles.
Speaking of Amrita, I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but for the lead character she was easily the least interesting of the bunch. While it would be boring if every YA book had a strong, intelligent, courageous teen at the helm, dealing with a persistently oblivious and frustratingly disbelieving protagonist was a challenge to say the least. Amrita lives in an isolated world, and not until she’s forced to abandon it does she even consider the outside world. Once there, she spends most of her time whining about how hard everything is and pining for the life she left behind. Which, sure, I get it, life sucks when you’re being hunted by a tyrannical misogynist. But time after time Amrita’s problems are solved not by her taking action but by her waiting for someone to tell her what to do. She never learns to deal with her hard knocks because they get resolved or erased before the consequences hit.
I’m also somewhat uncomfortable with how The Library of Fates treats relationships. For one, insta-love (a trope that if I never see again will be too soon) is not a healthy foundation for a relationship, no matter how star-crossed you are. Even worse, the new object of Amrita’s desire is so thinly developed that it’s hard to root for him over the boy she’s in love with at the beginning of the book. Amrita and her two beaus don’t really end up in a love triangle, but because her second love lacks the foundation (or personality) of her first it’s hard to get invested in it.
On top of that is the creepy romantic fallout of Amrita and Thala’s late-game time travelling. Not to get too spoilery here, but Amrita kicked the whole story off by refusing to marry Sikander even if it meant saving her kingdom from conquest and decimation, yet by the end we’re supposed to be okay with another character marrying him under the same cruel circumstances. Not only that, but the novel more or less puts forth the idea that the love of a good woman makes a man behave.
The Library of Fates’s greatest fault is not following through on anything. The novel toys with a lot of interesting notions, but none get more than a surface touch. Feminism is a recurring theme—from Amrita’s resistance to her politically arranged marriage to Macedon’s anti-woman culture—but each time it’s brought up it’s dropped before anyone can come to any conclusions. Drug abuse, slavery, and sexual violence are also frequently tsked but nothing comes of it. The character who suffers the brunt of the book’s off camera brutality does so stoically and gets over her issues quickly and with few lingering side effects. When the lover of another character sides with Sikander, again, there’s some moaning about betrayal but it’s forgotten as soon as a new beau arrives on the scene.
The plot (well, plots) moves quickly and doesn’t dwell. As their quest takes them to new and confounding places, Thala and Amrita learn to trust each other. The female friendship between Amrita and Thala is strong and positive and teaches good lessons about sticking up for yourself. Thala is a lot more interesting than Amrita, but even on her own Amrita offers flair and intrigue. If anything, I wish we got to spend more time on their fledgling friendship.
Khorana’s novel starts off as a feminist quest tale then veers off into a ton of random directions until it just sorta ends. A story like this needs more oomph to stick the landing. Given the darker themes haunting Amrita and Thala, I was a bit disappointed that Khorana didn’t push them more. But just because it wasn’t as taut as I would’ve liked, doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.
The Library of Fates is best consumed like a sugary treat rather than a substantial meal. It’s not as deep as it thinks it is, but it is fun and easy and engaging enough. Plus, it isn’t often when we get YA SFF set in a non-Western world and with non-Western characters, especially one written by a non-white author. At the end of the day, despite its flaws, I liked The Library of Fates. Never once did I get bored or consider not finishing it. It has more than a few structural issues, but on the whole it’s a solid B.
The Library of Fates is available now from Razorbill.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.