Since the murder of their mother, the maharani of Ashoka, the relationship between four royal siblings has been strained. Vira has ascended to the throne and now has the weight of the kingdom and the fate of magic in her hands. Kaleb, her half-brother has been accused of orchestrating their mother’s assassination and sits in prison each day. Ronak, Vira’s twin brother, is plotting to free Kaleb from prison while also working to break free of an arranged marriage and escape from the kingdom. And Riya has abandoned the palace and joined up with a group of rebels. When the four siblings come together again, each with conflicting agendas, they must learn to work together to find the legendary Ivory Key which will lead to a new source of magic. The fate of the kingdom, and their lives, depend on it.
This is a fun start to a duology that is full of court intrigue, magic, diverse representation, and nuanced relationships and I loved several things about the book.
First, the hunt for the Ivory Key was incredibly compelling. The siblings had to work together to solve puzzles and each person had their own strengths which shone in those moments. It was fun to work through the puzzles alongside the characters and guess at solutions, and the fact that the characters gained these skills from practicing with their father who was obsessed with finding the Key provided a rich backstory. I thought the actual hunt for the key made the plot move swiftly and was filled with excitement. At the same time, I thought it took a while for the plot to really get moving. We knew that the hunt for the key was going to provide the crux of the action, but it happened largely in the last third of the book. I thought the first half of the book lagged a bit as the story was being set up.
I was largely impressed with the characterization in the novel. Each sibling got their own perspective and opportunity to drive the story forward and I felt like I really got to know the personality and motivations of each sibling which is especially important as they have conflicting motivations throughout the story. I did think Vira was slightly less fleshed out than the other characters, but I still liked her perspective and enjoyed the romantic aspect of her storyline. There was a wealth of BIPOC and queer representation in the characters which I really loved.
The world building is wonderful in this story. It’s richly detailed and is inspired by India, descriptions of the setting, clothing, and food are vibrant and really transported me into the world. My one complaint about the world building is that the magic system is poorly described. I really don’t know how magic work or what role it plays in their world, only that it is critically important to the functioning of Ashoka and that it can be mined. The fact that magic is running out is meant to be high stakes, but it felt less important to me because I did not understand what it would mean to Ashoka if they ran out of magic.
So, strong characterization, a compelling hunt, and a rich world make this book a compelling read, despite some issues with pacing and description. I am definitely going to be reading the next book in the series.
CW: From author:graphic descriptions of dead bodies (specifically on page 1 & Chapter 6), high volume of discussion of grief and loss, death of family members (specifically parents–the deaths occur off page but are discussed throughout), recovering from trauma, blood, violence, emotional manipulation, alcohol, discussion of identity policing/microaggressions directed toward a biracial character, allusions to human experimentation, discussions of war/an invading country