Epic Poetry + Space Opera + YA Fantasy = A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna

Esmae has a secret, one that when revealed will reshape the galaxy. For most of her life she thought she was alone, an orphaned girl left to a foundling home on the the spaceship Wychstar. But when Amba, the goddess of war, shared the dark truth of her birth, Esmae knew she was fated for greater things. Years later, King Darshan proposes a nearly competition with a indestructible, sentient ship, the Titania, as the prize. Darshan tilts the game in favor of the exiled prince Alexi, whom he hopes will use it with his brother Bear to take back throne of Kali from their usurper uncle Elvar. Instead, Esmae wins and announces her secret: she is Alexi’s long lost twin. And the match of fate is struck.

All Esmae wants is a peaceful life on Kali, but in order to do that she must insinuate herself into her uncle’s court and find a way to undermine his power. Except the longer she stays with Elvar and his family on Kali, the harder her treachery becomes. It is easy to lie to people she believes are heartless villains, less as she discovers no one is truly good or evil but mired in shades of gray.

As war becomes increasingly inevitable, Esmae begins to question everything she knows. Her faith in her friends, family, and the gods is pushed to the breaking point. Each choice she makes brings her closer to a final confrontation that may cost her not just Kali but her very life. A Spark of White Fire is a story of challenging fate, broken hearts, and the high cost of peace.

When we in western civilization talk about the great ancient epic poems, we often fall back on the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, or Beowulf. Sure, those are incredible stories, ones I’ve read several times, but if we limit ourselves to a Eurocentric perspective of the ancient world, we’re missing a huge part of our global history. The eastern world is full of powerful, vivid, and historically detailed epics. Written in about 2100 BCE, The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Sumeria predates the earliest known written version of the Iliad by more than a thousand years. The longest poem written by one poet (rather than a poem cobbled together from various sources)? The Persian Shahnama, composed around 1000 CE.

Most relevant to our purposes here is the Mahābhārata, which tells the story of two feuding cousins and the kingdom they battled over. It’s a massive poem, much bigger than the famous Homeric epics, and is sprawling in content and complexity. Gods, nobles, spouses, and children converge and conflict across ancient India, and the early tenets of Hinduism are hashed out and affirmed. Adapting the Mahābhārata into a young adult science fiction/fantasy story requires dexterity, attention to detail, and a willingness to break all the rules. It shouldn’t work—I’m certainly not brave enough to attempt such a feat—but Mandanna succeeds … for the most part. I adored the premise and marveled at how she twisted and reshaped the ancient poem into a futuristic melodrama. However, where the premise burns hot and the plot sparks wildly, the characters fizzle out.

Readers are going to love Esmae, and for good reason. She is self-assured and determined, a young woman forced into difficult situations but strong enough to come out the other side with her self-esteem intact. On the other hand, the personalities of everyone not Esmae are so thinly sketched that sometimes they feel less like characters and more like several tropes in a trench coat. For me what’s worse is that Mandanna dabbles in the hoary, old romance subplot “the main character falls in love because he’s the only boy in the novel who is her age, straight, and not a blood relation.”

Titania is a good example of the weaker aspects of characterization. The ship seems to be based on Draupadi from the Mahābhārata, but given that the ship has little personality or character arc, I’m not sure why Mandanna chose to make the ship sentient or gendered as female. Further complicating matters is the unanswered question as to whether or not sentient ships are even a thing. Because no one bats an eye at Titania’s conversational skills, I have to assume they must be. However, no other ships are gendered and Titania complains about the lack of other sentient ships for her to talk to. Seems to me if the gods created an indestructible warship that could talk, humans would have some opinions about that, especially since none of the other god-made weapons are sentient.

Ultimately, the troubles with character development come down to the plot overriding the characters. Things happen because the plot says they must, even when those actions force unsubstantiated or out-of-character behavior. When what a character does becomes more important than why they do it, the story buckles. As fascinating as the adaptation is, the plot steers the characters rather than the other way around. Nevertheless I can’t write off the novel because even though the pieces don’t fit together all that well, individually they’re deeply compelling.

Sangu Mandanna’s A Spark of White Fire is a promising opening for what looks to be an exciting trilogy. It bridges fantasy and science fiction in a terribly intriguing and wonderfully diverse fashion. The first book in the Celestial Trilogy has all the ill-fated romance and political machinations of high fantasy and the action and adventure of space opera. Yet it’s the addition of ancient Indian mythology that kicks it into overdrive.

It is so close to being great. If Mandanna can sort out the plotting issues, this could be a series for the ages.  For me, the mark of a worthwhile story is whether or not I want to read more from the author. After A Spark of White Fire, I can safely say that I’ve already set aside my $17.99 for the sequel and ordered The Lost Girl from my library.

A Spark of White Fire is available from Sky Pony Press.

Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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