The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. ★★★1/2
The Palace of Illusions draws upon the Mahabharat, the famous Indian epic, to tell the story of Panchaali, a woman with five husbands. Panchaali’s story starts with her as a young princess, born from flames and proclaimed to have a world shaping destiny. Panchaali’s actions will eventually lead to a war that will bring about the end of an age.
The Palace of Illusions is a story of vengeance. Panchaali’s father vowed to avenge himself upon the man who stole half his kingdom, and Panchaali herself later seeks her revenge for the action that shamed her and took away everything she and her husbands had. Vengeance and pride coil together within Panchaali, giving her no rest. But would vengeance really give her relief?
“She who sows vengeance must reap its bloody fruit.”
Panchaali, with her strong pride and focus on revenge, is not the usual sort of heroine. Her actions might not always be right, but she possesses a fiery determination and a fierce will. The Palace of Illusions is told in first person with Panchaali’s voice, and while I could not always agree with her, I often sympathized.
One thing I could never figure out is why Panchaali was so completely in love with Karna since they barely interacted! She sees a portrait of him, and then speaks barely one sentence to him, but she says she cannot get him out of her heart? Their exchanges continued to be highly limited over the course of the book. My best guess is that Panchaali’s love for Karna is something from the Mahabharat, which I’m largely unfamiliar with. Then again, I’ve heard that The Palace of Illusions has a number of deviations from the original epic.
Although I got a strong sense of who Panchaali was, not all of the secondary characters felt as well developed. In particular, I wish that some of her husbands had more characterization. I never got much of a feeling for who the youngest two were or what they were like.
The prose of The Palace of Illusions is elegant and effective, although it does tend to rely on portentous statements to create foreshadowing. I loved the evocative language and descriptions. However, my interest began to flag towards the end, especially after the great battle.
I don’t really know enough about the Mahabharat to recommend The Palace of Illusions upon that basis, but if you’re looking for an epic tale of vengeance or a story seeking to place a woman at the center of the narrative, this might be the book for you.