Books

Review: ‘The Bookweaver’s Daughter’ by Malavika Kannan

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

When I came across the description for Malavika Kannan’s debut, The Bookweaver’s Daughter, requesting an ARC was a no-brainer for me. Described as a YA fantasy inspired by the mythology of India, it called out to my love of the genre and my constant search for Indian representation in literature. Not only that, but the book’s synopsis said the story took place in a land called ‘Kasmira,’ which I was certain was based on Kashmir. 

A personal note — I’m Kashmiri on my Dad’s side of the family, and I had yet to read a YA novel set in or inspired by Kashmir (if I remember correctly, the only book I’ve read at all set in the region is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children). So I went into this book excited, hoping to love it. Unfortunately, I didn’t. 

I’ll start with the positives. There are some genuinely really good moments of prose here — certain turns of phrases work really well. Also, Kannan was just 17 when she wrote this book, and she writes the voice of Reya, the 15-year-old narrator, very authentically. There are one-liners sprinkled throughout that are funny, and sound natural for a young teenager. I have no doubt that Kannan has the makings of a good writer. 

Before I move onto the negatives, I think it’s worth providing a brief plot summary. It is, essentially, a very pared down version of Avatar: The Last Airbender or Children of Blood and Bone. Reya Kandhari lives in Kasmira, a fantasy Indic kingdom that was once home to powerful magi known as Yogis, but that has in the last seven years been invaded by the cruel King Jahan Zakir. Reya’s father is the Bookweaver, the only remaining Yogi in Kasmira who possesses a type of storytelling magic. Reya inherits this power suddenly, and, along with her best friend Nina, has to go on the run as Prince Devendra, Jahan’s son — a character very obviously modelled on Zuko or Inan from the aforementioned ATLA and  CBB — hunts her down, and she becomes the symbol of the Kasmiri resistance.

The two major issues with the book can generally be divided into the writing — the style and mechanics of the actual text — and the actual content of the story, so I’ll take a two-pronged approach to dissecting this because, boy, do I have a lot to say. 

The Writing 

I mentioned that Kannan was very young when she wrote this novel, and whilst the achievement of writing and publishing a novel as a teen is a feat I applaud her for, it really does show up in the writing and structure of the book. The best way I can describe this book is that it reads like a highlights reel. There’s a reason sports fans tend to prefer watching actual games in full rather than just the after-match wrap-up, but this book unfortunately reads like the latter.

It felt like I was reading a very detailed synopsis or outline, because plot beats moved so quickly and abruptly from one to the other. There were no sequences of transition or spaces to breathe. If a character was foreshadowed in one scene, they’d suddenly be introduced the next sentence. There’s a big reveal about one character that is foreshadowed and then immediately revealed and confirmed in the same two pages. The book was a very quick read, close to novella length, and for the story this book wanted to tell, it did not work.

There were essential character and plot arcs we needed to buy into but couldn’t. Reya and Nina’s friendship is supposed to form the emotional core of the story and most of the emotional stakes of the story are entirely contingent upon it. But we never get to see any organic development between the two, no moments of interaction that show us how much they mean to each other and why. It’s clear the author believes in the power of their friendship wholeheartedly, but the way she does that is by having Reya repeatedly say how much she loves Nina, and it doesn’t really do anything to help us invest in the relationship. I focused on them because it’s the central relationship in the book, but just about every character dynamic has this issue.

The plot was paradoxical in that so many things happened but I could not tell you what was a plot twist or a surprise, I couldn’t point to any rising or falling action because there isn’t any. There were definitely moments meant to be Big Reveals or Plot Twists, but they didn’t carry any weight because nothing in the story up to that point really affected them. They just happened in completely linear fashion.

And I keep saying it, but this book really suffered from lack of “in-between” moments. Those slower, quiet moments are where the skill of authors really shine through; if used correctly, they can facilitate some really powerful moments of relationship and character development or thematic introspection. This book had none of those at all, and it felt very bare-bones and hollow as a result — Kannan seems to have written only the “climactic” scenes, but a climax is only a climax if it’s bolstered by rises and falls. Otherwise, it’s just a disjointed list of things that happen.

The Content

I have to preface this section by saying that Malavika Kannan is an Own Voices author, so she has every right to depict and explore facets of her culture and identity as she sees fit. 

That being said, as an Own Voices reader, a lot of the world-building details in this book baffled and disappointed me. Some were minor — at one point, the characters, all of whom are very obviously based on North Indian cultures, mention drinking ‘rasam’, a dish specific to South India (India is a big ol’ country, and the cultural and linguistic differences between states and regions are enormous!). Characters say ‘naan bread’ and ‘chai tea,’ two notorious phrases which are nails-on-a-chalkboard for most Indians — naan and chai mean bread and tea. Even non-Desis speakers have largely cottoned on to this by now! Also, there’s a language called ‘Ancient Kasmiri’ mentioned in the book which (by the way, Kashmiri is in fact a very real language) throws in a few Sanskrit phrases here and there but consists mainly of Latin which is jarring and a little bizarre in such a non-Anglicised setting. 

Most of these are small details, not catastrophic by any means, but the fact that there were so many of these noticeable inaccuracies was a little irksome to read. However, none of these are even close to the issues I have with the substance of the plot.

To explain this properly, I’m going to need to give you a very, very brief and highly simplified crash-course in Indian history and geopolitics, neither of which I’m exactly an expert in myself, so strap in. 

Kashmir: A (very) brief history

Basically, India was historically a series of Princely States (another reason for the myriad of cultural differences I mentioned earlier). The Indian subcontinent was conquered and ruled by various empires and dynasties throughout the years, and then came the British Raj and the creation of “British India.” When India finally freed itself from colonial rule in 1947, Britain divided the country into two independent nations: India and Pakistan. This division is known as partition, and is one of the bloodiest and most traumatic events in the history of both nations. Several families — my own included — all both sides of the border have been irreversibly shaped by the generational trauma of this event to this day. The underlying conflict of Partition — and again, this is an almost comically simplified explanation — is that Hindu areas were meant to join India, while Muslim majority states were supposed to join Pakistan. Since there were families of numerous religions who had been living all across and on both sides of the border for generations, this upheaval caused all kinds of violence and rising religious tensions.

Kashmir was caught in a tricky place in this conflict, because whilst it’s population was a Muslim majority, it’s Raja was Hindu, and he didn’t commit to joining either India or Pakistan straight away. What ended up happening is that both Indian and Pakistan eventually ended up claiming sovereignty of the state, and it’s been disputed territory ever since. Religious tensions and violence grew increasingly worse. In 1985, outcry from those who contested India’s occupation led to the persecution of the small Hindu population in Kashmir. Known as the Kashmiri Pandits, they amassed only 5% of the population, but they had lived there for generations. Religious violence resulted in a genocide of the Kashmiri Pandits however, as several murders and attacks took place, and eventually the increasing tensions culminated in an Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, almost all of whom had to flee their ancestral homeland forever. 

Remember when I said I was a Kashmiri? Let me clarify — I’m a Kashmir Pandit, and my father’s family was one of those affected by the genocide. Most of them haven’t lived in Kashmir for generations, despite being proud of and invested in Kashmiri culture and heritage. The Exodus of the Pandits is a deeply personal and painful chapter in the family’s history, alongside, partition.

But to get the whole picture of Kashmir’s story, we have to fast forward to the present, where India has revoked Kashmir’s special status — which granted it autonomy from India’s government — and forced the region into a brutal lockdown. There has been land settlement, violence, and Kashmir is now the most militarised region in the world. The Indian government and supporters of this regime have consistently touted the Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits as an excuse for the human rights abuses being enacted in Kashmir right now, turning a tragic and painful genocide into a political trump card.

Okay, back to the review

If you’re still with me after that crash course — and I highly encourage you to do your own research on all of this! — we return to The Bookweaver’s Daughter, specifically, the world-building.

Any doubts I had about Kasmira being an obvious Kashmir stand-in were quickly eviscerated by the plot. Several words, including the main character’s name and the presence of “Yogis” are directly lifted from Sanskrit, the language used in the Hindu scriptures. The magic of Bookweaving, associated with scholarship, record-keeping, scribing, all draws on the imagery traditionally ascribed to Kashmiri Pandits, whose Brahmin status means they’re also regarded as religious scholars. Meanwhile, the villains are evil conquerors with the explicitly Muslim surname “Zakir”. Their architecture is constantly described as having domes and minarets, again a hallmark of Islamic architecture, and the symbolism is about as unsubtle as it was with the Hindu imagery.

With these two sides situated in a story about a Hindu-coded group being oppressed and driven from their ancestral homeland by Muslim-coded oppressors, the metaphor could not be more obvious. But it is irresponsible writing on many levels. 

As I have explained, the Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits is unreservedly a tragedy. It’s a traumatic chapter in a traumatic and ongoing story. But there is nothing cathartic or personal about an author — who I am almost certain is not a Kashmiri Pandit — using that history, in a way that feels grossly under-researched and riddled with inaccuracies for a story which ends up feeling dangerously loaded when given the context of Kashmir, India, and India’s Islamophobia today.

I will be the first to admit I balk at the idea of discussing Kashmiri politics outside of my immediate family because the issue is so complicated and, for us, so personal. I find it frankly offensive when the Exodus of the Pandits is constantly brought up as some kind of justification for the human rights abuses being carried out today, as if it’s a ‘gotcha!’ moment and not a source of generational trauma that has left a community burdened with the imminence of its own extinction for years. 

And, by telling a very poorly fleshed out and frankly Islamophobic story, Kannan has, whether intentionally or not, engaged in that same reductive narrative and it’s profoundly uncomfortable for me to read. And make no mistake, this story reads as deeply Islamophobic. Devendra Zakir, who I mentioned earlier, had me scratching my head at first because he was the only one of the Muslim-coded Zakirs with a Sanskrit, Hindu first name. I thought it was just a lack of research or another cultural inaccuracy on the author’s part but then — spoiler — it turns out he’s the only one of the antagonists who’s even slightly sympathetic to the heroes. Shocker! 

Again, I’m aware Kannan — who is 19 now — wrote this novel several years ago, when she was younger and Kashmir didn’t dominate the news cycle in the same way. I doubt she set out to engage in a narrative of reducing very real trauma to inaccurate and oversimplified political propaganda intentionally. But this needed to be researched. I don’t say “researched more” because I don’t think it was researched at all. This needed to be run by other sets of eyes, preferably Kashmiris, Kashmiri Pandits, Muslims, and people who are well-versed in Kashmiri history. 

I’m all for fantasies that play fast-and-loose with their historical influences, and I fully embrace the idea of using historical events as points of imagination and inspiration for a story. But when it comes to an event like the Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, which is not only enduringly traumatic, but also something so frequently touted as a trigger and a dog-whistle in a dangerous and violent political and religious conflict right now, then it is your responsibility as an author to make damn well sure you are equipped to tell that story and handle it sensitively and intelligently. If you’d told me the concept for this story beforehand, I’d have been highly skeptical that it was one a non-Kashmiri Pandit should have been telling, and having read this book, none of my doubts were assuaged.

What saddened me on a more personal level is that despite constructing a poorly wrought plot based on the politics and trauma of Kashmir, there was no real representation of the details and delights of Kashmiri culture. Kashmiris have our own cuisine, types of dress, specific festivals — none of them appeared amidst the rasam and the naan bread. 

In Conclusion (finally) 

It’s only fair to point out that reading this book wasn’t actually a terrible experience. I got through it very quickly, and while the issues in writing were glaringly obvious and kept me from truly enjoying it, they didn’t make me angry and want to DNF either. If those were the only issues, I would probably have been able to say this was a good effort from a young author with some real promise, but that was probably published much too soon.

However, intentionally or not, this book threw itself obviously and squarely in the middle of one of the most complicated and sensitive conflicts I know of. Navigating the discussion around the connection between the atrocities committed against the Kashmiri Pandits and those being carried out against Muslims in Kashmir is one which I, my family, and most experts would struggle to navigate properly. This book attempted to do so, and did so very very poorly. And in the current climate, to do so is not only irresponsible, but it is dangerous. So I apologise for the length of this review — and I truly do wish Kannan the best — but I felt like, as a Kashmiri Pandit, the least I could do was say something.

I received an eARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

16 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Bookweaver’s Daughter’ by Malavika Kannan”

  1. WOW!! This was such an eloquent review, I’m honestly in awe. I was initially intrigued by this book because not only is it written by a woman of color, it is also written by an actual teen. It’s a shame that this book turned out to have more problematic elements than the good things, and I can only hope that the author would write more better-written books in the future.

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    1. Thank you so much!! I was excited about this book for similar reason so was really disappointed by the result — I do think the author could be a really good writer with some more time and serious research so here’s hoping for some improvement!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an amazing and eloquent review!!! I appreciated how well explained everything is, without ignoring any positive aspects and patiently pointing out the issues. I also have kashmiri family and really appreciated reading this. Thank you!

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    1. I’m so glad you appreciated it!! I felt like bringing Kashmiri voices to this issue was really important and I’m so happy it resonated ☺️

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  3. Oh my god the entire plot seems terribly tone deaf! Given the complexity surrounding the religious dynamics within the country (especially Kashmir), nuance is always necessary and it seems as if this book failed to do that. I had no interest in this book but I will be sure to steer clear of it! Even worse if the author isn’t a Kashmiri Pandit

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  4. I am truly awed by this review! Not only were you bang on about the entire book feeling like a highlights reel, made up only of climaxes, I truly learnt something from your review. There are so many subtleties that I missed, the Devendra Zakir being one of them! And the naan bread and chai tea were really ughh!

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