A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna. ★★★★
Years ago, I read Sangu Mandanna’s debut novel. While I wasn’t exactly blown away, I thought it’d be worth returning to her work later on in her career. So when I heard about her second book, A Spark of White Fire, a young adult sci-fi novel inspired by the Mahabharata, I decided to give it a go. And as it turns out, she’s really grown as a writer! A Spark of White Fire is an entertaining entry to the field of young adult SFF, and I have a hunch that it’ll be one of my favorite YA novels of 2018.
Esmae is an exiled princess, only no one knows it. At birth, she was separated from her twin brother, Alexi, heir to the kingdom of Kali, and grew up in an orphanage of a neighboring kingdom. Luckily, she was a favorite of a goddess, who made sure that Esmae received an education fit for a princess. Flashforward to the present day, when her uncle has seized the throne of Kali and Alexi is trying to raise an army to retake his throne. Key to his plan is entering a contest to fight for the spaceship Titania, which the gods have promised is undefeatable. Only, Esmae has a plan of her own, which requires revealing her true identity and winning the Titania herself. If she can convince her uncle she’s on his side, then she can be a spy for Alexi within Kali itself. Only, Esmae is new to the family history and drama, and she never wanted war in the first place.
In the world of A Spark of White Fire, gods are immortal and divine beings who take an interest in the human world. While they cannot directly interfere with a human’s fate for risk of losing their godhood, they can exert a great amount of influence. It is because of the gods and their rules that most modern weapons have been banned, in an effort to decrease casualties. Wars are fought with bows and swords, in hand-to-hand combat. Spaceships have some more advanced weapons, but they are limited in their uses.
Before the gods’ rules on warfare were explained, I’ll admit that I was confused as to why the contest for the Titania involved archery in a science fiction setting. However, I think that the rules of warfare is a great example of how aesthetic can be woven into a story without compromising plot or world building. A Spark of White Fire could easily be called a space fantasy — a nominal science fiction novel that resembles a fantasy novel in the plot and some aspects of world building. It’s also a clever way to bring in elements of Indian mythology and the Mahabharata.
I really enjoyed the influence of the Mahabharata, although I’ll admit that I’m not super familiar with the source material. Most of what I know comes from reading a retelling, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions. Reading A Spark of White Fire, I would occasionally have sparks of familiarity with elements such as the contest for the Titania. If you’re familiar with the mythology, then that adds another layer of depth to A Spark of White Fire. If you’re not, or like me have only a passing familiarity than it is still a story that holds its own.
Before I dive into characters and plot, there’s one other world-building concept I want to comment on: lack of sexism. Women in A Spark of White Fire are just as likely to be trained as warriors, and there’s never any comments about Esmae’s fighting skills being unusual because she’s a girl. Actually, I can’t remember anything that suggests sexism is a thing in this universe. Relatedly, Mandanna also includes some queer supporting characters, and homophobia doesn’t appear to be present either.
Some of A Spark of White Fire‘s plot beats may be predictable, but that’s okay. Tropes are tropes for a reason: when used well, they work. Besides, with any type of mythology retelling, you’re going to get at least some predictable elements. What matters is that the story itself is engaging and well told.
If you are a regular reader of my reviews, then you probably know that I’m not a huge romance fan. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I tend to dislike it. This is particularly a problem for YA novels, which tend to be obsessed with romantic plotlines, and personally annoying tropes such as insta-love and love triangles. For those curious, A Spark of White Fire does not have a love triangle! While there is a romantic subplot, it didn’t annoy me. The love interest, Max, is the adopted son of Esmae’s throne-usurping uncle. Only, the uncle doesn’t actually treat Max like a son. The romance itself is a slow enough burn that it never felt out of left field, and I think Esmae and Max do have traits in common and similar values. Both are outsiders as a sort, and both wish to avoid war and to heal the broken family. All in all, it’s a romance that I found believable and that didn’t actively annoy me, which is always a win!
If you’re looking for a young adult SFF story with complicated family dynamics, curses, and a female lead who can hold her own in a fight, then A Spark of White Fire is the book for you.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.