2018’s Aru Shah and the End of Time is the first volume of Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series.
Desperate to fit in with the wealthy kids at her school, preteen Aru Shah has spun a diverting web of lies. The flaw in her bold scheme is that her lies are transparently false. Vexed at Aru’s fabrications, a bevy of schoolmates confront Aru at her home, an annex to the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture that her mother runs.
Feeling that her reputation at school is on the line, Aru makes a bold move: she will show her skeptical frenemies a genuine curse lamp.
This could be the gambit that dooms the world.
The Lamp of Bharata is a real lamp. There is a real curse. By lighting the lamp, Aru has unleashed on the world the Sleeper who will rouse the Lord of Destruction, who will in turn fulfil his destiny by ending creation. Whoops. Time is frozen in an expanding circle centered on the lamp; Aru’s four school chums (and her mother) won’t be able to tell anyone what Aru did.
Not all is lost. Aru is immune to the effects of the time freeze because she just happens to be one of the five reincarnated Pandava brothers. The other four reincarnated brothers are out in the world somewhere; together they can stop the Sleeper. As well, Aru has a mystic guide in the form of a talking bird Subala (or “Boo” for short); the bird will give Aru and the other Pandava reincarnates some much needed guidance.
Alas. Despite magical assistance, Aru locates only one of her four mystic siblings, diminutive Mini. Two Pandavas are not much with which to save the world. Boo is quite open about their poor chances, particularly given Aru’s dismal assortment of skills and training (not much and nil, respectively).
Unlike Aru, Mini understands that the Pandava brothers live life after life and while her family never considered that tiny Mini might be this generation’s reincarnate, Mini has a wealth of information about the situation, information that Aru has been denied. There is increasing evidence that suggests Aru was kept in ignorance by her family. The family has dark secrets, secrets that may be the key to saving the world.
This is a middle grade book. Adjust your expectations accordingly. It’s also a Rick Riorden Presents book. If I understand the background correctly, part of the inspiration for the series was Riordan’s reluctance to appropriate other cultures as his personal playground. Instead, he’s facilitating the publication of other authors’ myth and theology-inspired adventures.
Aru Shah draws on the Mahabharata.It also name-checks the Mahabharata. Western readers inexplicably unfamiliar with this epic get sufficient inclueing to understand the sources that inspired this work. Perhaps they’ll even seek it out.
There are a lot of books about Chosen Ones out there. Chosen Ones often start off unsure if they are really the Chosen One. Moreover, they don’t have the information they need to complete their task. Both boxes checked. But there’s another theme in this book. The characters are bothered by the notion of predestined Chosen Ones. What of free will if fate has decreed that you will save the world? What of free will if you discover that even though you want to be a good person, the universe has designated you the Big Bad who will wake the Lord of Destruction?
Because this book was written for younger readers, these issues are raised but not resolved. Railing against destiny is well and good, but Aru isn’t going to let the Sleeper end the world because she didn’t ask to be a woken Pandava1.
The book is a bit uncomplicated for my tastes, but fifty-nine-year-olds are not the target market here. If you’ve got a middle grader looking for a modern-day fantasy, this may be the book for them.
1: Maybe it’s for the best that she is still a schoolkid, used to doing homework she would otherwise be little inclined to do.