Book Review: The Rise of Sivagami

Book Title: The Rise of Sivagami; Book 1 of Baahubali: Before the Beginning Trilogy

Book Author: Anand Neelakantan

The_Rise_of_Sivagami_cover

Back Cover Synopsis

Blessed by the sacred Gauriparvat, Mahishmathi is an empire of abundance. The powerful kingdom is flourishing under its king, who enjoys the support and loyalty of his subjects, down to his lowly slaves. But is everything really as it appears, or is the empire hiding its own dirty secret?

Orphaned at a young age and wrenched away from her foster family, Sivagami is waiting for the day she can avenge the death of her beloved father, cruelly branded a traitor. Her enemy? None other than the king of Mahishmathi. With unflinching belief in her father’s innocence, the fiery young orphan is driven to clear his name and destroy the empire of Mahishmathi against all odds. How far can she go in her audacious journey?

From the pen of masterful storyteller and bestselling author Anand Neelakantan, comes The Rise of Sivagami, the first book in the series Baahubali: Before the Beginning. A tale of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal, the revelations in The Rise of Sivagami will grip the reader and not let go.

My Review

I have always been wary of books built over the premise of movies from the same universe. However, I decided to give this one a read for three reasons: 1) There is so much of unexplored territory in Indian fantasy/mythology storytelling, and going by the premise, this book attempts to bridge the gap; 2) It has been a while since I visited the lands of Mahishmathi; and 3) Sivagami is my favorite character from the movies, only complemented by the majestic performance of actress Ramya Krishnan. It would be interesting to read more about Sivagami’s life.

Bird’s Eye: I have to say, this story had my interest right from the start, so much that I found myself devouring almost 100 pages of content in an hour (that’s a lot considering my average pace). With Sivagami’s name on the title, I expected the story to revolve more around her, but characters like the conflicted slave Kattappa, his rebellious brother Shivappa, the foolish Crown Prince Bijjala, and a straightforward but misunderstood (and quickly forgotten, might I add) underdog Skandadasa, ended up being more memorable for their deeds. The characters as a whole are well fleshed-out, and I found myself empathizing with most of their struggles. The book’s tone did not fluctuate, and the writing remained taut throughout.

Plot: The story had three primary subplots that entwined towards the end. Sort of. The first subplot dealt with Sivagami, the daughter of Devaraya, a former Bhoomipathi  (noble landlord), who got branded as a traitor by the King Somadeva and then executed for treason right before her eyes. Although it was not exactly clear why Devaraya was executed or who framed him (if at all he was), as naturally expected, Sivagami grew up awaiting an opportune moment to exact revenge on the kingdom and its king. She broke into her father’s sealed mansion and stole a manuscript in his possession, hoping it would clear his name. The second subplot focused on the slaves of Mahishmathi, their state of lives and the conflicts of freedom and duty they harbored against each other, beautifully personified through the stoic Malayappa and his two polar-opposite sons, Kattappa and Shivappa. The third subplot revolved around a coup organized against the King, perpetrated by those close to him. Their machinations were more elaborate and I would rather you discover it when you read, but rest assured they had some wicked tricks up their sleeve.

What I loved: Again, the characters! Despite being a fantasy novel, the story barely felt so. This was one of those writings that transformed characters into people. Sometimes, profound questions were raised, but I wish the author paused and allowed the readers to reflect on those thoughts. While the writing kept the story moving forward at a brisk pace, the stunning realism of the setting took the cake. On one side, Mahishmathi was portrayed as a brilliant and flourishing kingdom brimming with money, fame, fortune and wealth. On the other side, characters struggled to appease their stomachs, lived in abject poverty, and were victimized by heartlessly corrupt officials. This was shown artfully with little to no exposition, but through interesting situations, gripping dialogue and lucid action. That is good storytelling right there.

What I liked: I normally do not despise romantic subplots until they get too cheesy, unrealistic or melodramatic. I was glad that the romance in this story felt real and raw. There was nothing magical about it like flying butterflies, blossoming flowers, electric sparks or unnecessarily poetic dialogues. The fierce Sivagami, the hopeful Kamakshi, the naive Mahadeva, the lustful Bijjala, and the rational Shivappa showcase various dynamics of love and pain associated with it in myriad ways. Kattappa’s love for his brother, Shivappa’s love for his cause, Sivagami’s love for her foster family, Skandadasa’s love for his country, and Gundu Ramu’s love for food, are all facets of love, and I liked that the plot flexed and twisted to accommodate all those shades of love.

What I did not enjoy much: Although I acknowledge that this book is the first in what will be a trilogy, it ended not only on a cliffhanger (which is fine), but also without any kind of closure (unsettling, in not a good way). The third subplot was hyped greatly, with characters hinting at something cataclysmic, but when it was time to actually bring the rising action to a befitting resolution, everything dissolved too quickly. The action fell flat and appeared rushed. All the vigor and fire that were thrown at the readers throughout the story were extinguished in the blink of an eye.
When it comes to characterization, a well-accepted rule of thumb is a character evolution/arc. That is, characters, especially the main and optionally the supporting and recurring, show a significant change in their thoughts, perceptions or motivations between when the story begins and ends. Note that I appreciated the characterization, but not each of their evolution. A stark example of this is Sivagami herself, although other characters like Kattappa, Bijjala, and Mahadeva have noticeable arcs. At the start of the story, she was hell-bent on avenging her wronged father’s death and clearing his tainted name. At the end of the story, she was still that same person. Some might argue that she did have some inner-conflicts about her mission upon witnessing certain events (spoilers), but those conflicts emerged too late, only towards the end of the story. That left little time for us, the readers, to be okay with it. The emergence of her conflicts were sudden and abrupt, and hence untrue to her character, considering she believed all her life that the King and his kingdom were pure evil and needed to be destroyed.

The Verdict: Two characters that were immortalized by the movies are Sivagami and Kattappa, and it was definitely worth buying the book to read more about their lives. Although Sivagami had less to do with the book than Kattappa, it was well-written nonetheless. Three-dimensional characters brought the story to life. While the build-up towards the much anticipated climax was good, the climax itself deflated faster than Sivagami’s steadfastness in her vow to destroy Mahishmathi. With that being said, considering the pros outweigh cons, I will definitely pick up the second installment of this trilogy whenever it is out!

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