Title: A Spark of White Fire
Author: Sangu Mandanna
Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy
Copy: Physical ARC
In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.
Raised alone and far away from her home on Kali, Esmae longs to return to her family. When the King of Wychstar offers to gift the unbeatable, sentient warship Titania to a warrior that can win his competition, she sees her way home: she’ll enter the competition, reveal her true identity to the world, and help her famous brother win back the crown of Kali.
It’s a great plan. Until it falls apart.
Inspired by the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian stories, A Spark of White Fire is a lush, sweeping space opera about family, curses, and the endless battle between jealousy and love.
Despite being heavily influenced by the ancient epic Mahabharata and other Indian lore, there is nothing quite like Mandanna’s latest novel – A Spark of White Fire is an absolutely unique, genre-defying gamechanger in YA. I’ll admit that I have never read the Mahabharata (although after reading this novel, I definitely plan to eventually get to it) so I don’t know how much material was adopted in the story. Nonetheless, by the end of it all, A Spark of White Fire is truly an incomparable gem of a space opera.
🔹 Perfectly seamless blending of fantasy and science fiction elements!
While A Spark of White Fire is a science fiction novel set in space, it reads a lot like high fantasy. It is worth noting, however, that the fantastical elements are seamlessly interwoven into the story without overpowering the sci-fi aspects – a stark contrast to another space opera I recently read, Mirage by Somaiya Daud. Although I really, really liked Mirage, the high fantasy side was noticeably more dominant in its story, while science fiction served as nothing more than a backdrop.
Related review: Mirage by Somaiya Daud.
In A Spark of White Fire, the essence of living aboard a spaceship, as opposed to living normally on a planet, is felt throughout the story. Esmae (the protagonist) feeling a noticeable dissonance whenever she is on solid ground, feeling natural sunlight hit her skin and breathing in fresh air; the necessity of bolted down furniture (because the kingdom of Kali is situated near an asteroid region) – these details supplemented the realness of the space environment.
Moreover, it never felt like the sci-fi and fantasy sides of the story were competing against each other; instead, they were complementary, bringing out the best in each other. Similarly, I thought it was great that a complementary coexistence between the advanced technology (i.e. lasers, sentient spaceships) and older, more traditional tools (i.e. swords, bows and arrows) is possible in this book.
🔹 Intricately developed world-building nicely integrated with Indian mythology!
Set in an interstellar environment and bursting with beliefs, myths, and traditions inspired by Indian culture, the world-building is undeniably complex and detailed. I appreciated that things were not explained in overwhelming chunks; instead, information was fed to me organically as more of the story unfolded.
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Clear limitations were set and nicely handled, such as how powerful gods are, the extents to which they can interfere with the lives of mortals, as well as the repercussions of too much godly interferences. I particularly liked the rationale behind the continued use of medieval weapons in warfare, as opposed to simply obliterating enemy territories with high-powered, weaponized technology. Plus, I think it was really clever to have a code of honor in place, as well as a larger entity (similar to the United Nations) that oversaw the actions of all the kingdoms.
🔹 Meddlesome gods and goddesses, and celestial weapons blessed by them!
The interactions between the gods and people – particularly, the conversations between Amba and Esmae – were endlessly fascinating to me. I loved how gods and goddesses could exchange banter with mortals, all the while still asserting their authority as divine, more powerful beings that warrant fear and respect. It was a peculiar yet refreshing dynamic to read about.
Even more so, I loved that they are not all-powerful, all-knowing figures that are devoid of emotion and completely detached from humankind; but rather, the gods are portrayed as very powerful, but not entirely faultless, morally righteous, or invincible. Outside of granting boons, gifting blessed celestial weapons, and inflicting curses, gods and goddesses could develop a genuine attachment towards the people they favor, exhibit certain weaknesses of their own, and bear the propensity to have very human moments.
🔹 Flawed, morally ambiguous characters of color!
As the protagonist of A Spark of White Fire, Esmae is an extremely compelling lead that I can easily relate to and kept rooting for, despite the fact that she occasionally makes decisions I cannot agree with. In the beginning of the story, her character is strong-willed, remarkably strategic, and ambitious, yet blind to her own naivety and overconfidence. The more the story progressed, the more Esmae learns that carrying out strategic plays in a Warlords game is incomparable to dealing with situations in real life – in all its ambiguity and unpredictability – and this consequently paves her way to the most interesting character development.
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While I may not have loved all the characters themselves, I certainly loved reading and learning more about each of them. In A Spark of White Fire, there are no good characters or bad characters: just wonderfully, intrinsically flawed characters of color.
From the widely revered heroic prince who was exiled by his own blood to the publicly hated thief prince who helped his adoptive father steal the throne, every character shares understandable flaws and makes decisions that are influenced by self-entitlement, ambition, fear and insecurity, loyalty, and the compulsion to protect what (and who) they care about. Hence, they all operated in gray areas of morality.
Their ambiguity, and at times, the unreliability of their moral compasses, together with their underlying motivations, added a lot of depth and dimension to the characters, which meant that it was effortless on my part to empathize with them.
I think it is worth noting that A Spark of White Fire features casual LGBTQ+ representation among its side characters. In the story, Esmae eventually learns that her new female friend is attracted to girls, and this happens in a very casual manner, which I appreciated. From what I understand, one of the princes is not straight either because, in one scene, he mentions his experience of having kissed both girls and boys.
🔹 Family complexities and character relationships!
Describing the royal family as complicated is a severe understatement. Right from the get-go, Esmae is driven by her desire to step out of the shadows and to reunite with the family she lost before even getting to know them. Unbeknownst to her, the relationships among her immediate family and her relatives have been twisted in knots, strained, and broken apart by secrets, betrayal, and self-interests.
Personally, I was not as invested in the relationships as much as I would have preferred, which is strange coming from me, considering the fact that I was already heavily invested to the point that one particular scene made me bawl my eyes out.
Nonetheless, I think some more room could have been made to develop a number of relationships more. I really would have liked more scenes between Rama and Esmae because Rama is a really adorable, charismatic character (whose inherent laziness is something I can identify with), and their friendship is something I enjoyed but did not get enough of. Similarly, Rickard is regarded by Esmae as the closest person she has to a father figure, but I don’t think that is really felt in the book.
Regarding the ensuing romance in A Spark of White Fire, it seemed like a pretty inevitable development, so I was not too surprised. What did surprise me was the fact that I did not hate the idea of Max and Esmae together. Although I did have a fair share of reservations (i.e. semi-incestuous nature of their relationship) and I think this story could have held its own without a romantic subplot, I also think that the build-up towards their romance was handled quite nicely. In other words, while I was not entirely sold, I am very much curious to know where Max and Esmae’s relationship would lead them in the sequel. (And I’ll also admit that they’re pretty cute together.)
🔹 Compelling plot with political scheming and fighting against the tides of destiny!
I’d have to say that A Spark of White Fire is quite fast-paced and plot-driven. Amidst the threat of impending war, the plot is rife with astronomically high stakes, political warfare, alliances, and endless tests of loyalty and commitment As two opposing potential rulers, with equally valid claim to the throne and equally large pride, attempt to weaken the other’s forces, Esmae finds herself caught in the middle in ways her strategizing couldn’t have prepared her for, all the while trying to fight against a seemingly inescapable destiny.
In other words: this book was one hell of a ride.
I really enjoyed how myths (e.g. how Amba came into existence) are incorporated into the narrative, offering much-needed respite from all the tension. I also absolutely loved two overarching conversations that A Spark of White Fire explored:
(1) The pivotal shift from trying to win a war to wanting to prevent the loss of lives. At the beginning of the plot, Esmae wants to take matters into her own hands, leave her life as an unnoticed pawn behind, and do what it takes to help her brother reclaim the throne so that she and her family live happily in the kingdom of Kali. Later on Esmae would come to the realization that, in the process of doing so, she was unknowingly serving as a pawn to someone else’s selfish war – a war that would put too much at cost. (I cannot stress how much “YAS QUEEN!!!”-ing took place when I got to the latter half of the book. Y’ALL, A LOT OF FEELS WERE FELT. A LOT OF WIGS WERE SNATCHED. A LOT OF FEMALE PRIDE COURSED THROUGH MY VEINS LIKE A SHOT OF CONCENTRATED CAFFEINE.)
(2) A recurring theme in A Spark of White Fire is the constant questioning of how much control do we really have over our own destiny? Or are we all forced to live as pawns in a larger cosmic game we can hardly understand, much less have control over? I took up a Philosophy elective on Metaphysics last semester, and the discussion of predeterminism vs. free will is one that is close to my heart.
Despite how some portions of the plot seemed fairly predictable, I was fully immersed and consistently engaged throughout the story! At some level, there’s a sense of familiarity and inevitability as the plot progressed, but as more and more scenes took place, the more aware I became of the gaps in between – and the more aware I became, the more I wanted to understand. Once everything finally fell into place, I was simply too blown away for words.
🔹 A thrilling, satisfying conclusion that sets up the sequel very nicely!
Here’s what you need to know: the ending had me (literally) crying and shrieking and muttering about train wrecks.
Overall, A Spark of White Fire is wonderfully imaginative, culturally rich, and fascinatingly complex. It goes without saying that I absolutely enjoyed it! With a flawed heroine who grows stronger in the face of adversity, complex characters that are more than what meets the eye, a compelling plot with themes of family politics, betrayal, and loyalty, A Spark of White Fire is a brilliant space opera no one should miss out on.
Disclosure: I received a physical ARC of A Spark of White Fire from Samantha Shannon from Twitter. I’ve also signed up to participate in a blog tour organized by The Fantastic Flying Book Club. This affects neither my opinion nor the content of this review.
Expand for possible triggers and content warnings.
Death; themes of war; parental abandonment; murder.
Excerpt from the book:
I glance one last time into the crowd. At Amba. Her ancient eyes are full of untold catastrophes. Don’t do it, they say.
“Then stop me,” I whisper.
I leave the lonely dark of the shadows. I am in the light. Bow in hand. A pawn in a Warlords game.
Do you know what happens when a pawn gets all the way across the board?
She becomes a queen.
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✨ Do you plan on reading A Spark of White Fire? (By the way, the right answer is DEFINITELY YES!) If you’ve already read the book, which of the characters are you rooting for?
✨ Do you believe in a predetermined fate, or do you believe that people make and shape their respective destinies?
✨ Are you in search of more science fiction and fantasy that are inspired by Asian cultures? Then check out my lengthy lists of 2018 & 2019 Asian-inspired fantasies as well as 2018 & 2019 Asian science fiction!
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