The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1) by Sayantani Dasgupta, illustrated by Vivienne To.
Scholastic, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 358 pages.
Lexile: 730L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 10.0 points) .
Kiranmala is so over her parents’ stories and dressing up like “a real Indian princess” for every birthday – they’re already overprotective and weird, do they have to keep lying about a magical land too? Then they go missing, and a rakkhosh shows up at her house closely followed by two princes. Kiranmala will have to draw on every bit of help, magic, and story to figure out how to save her parents, herself, and maybe a few others too.
Dasgupta focuses on Bengali stories as her main inspiration, and it definitely gives the fantasy a fresh slant. But the writing truly brings two places to life – The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers and Kiranmala’s home in Parsippany, New Jersey – and while most of the magic happens in the Kingdom, Dasgupta manages to make New Jersey surprisingly compelling.
In particular, I was very impressed with the mix of science into the story. Science fiction and fantasy are distinct genres (along with horror and the less popular science fantasy) under the speculative fiction umbrella. Although a lot of people enjoy both, many readers don’t like to mix these two, especially in the MG range. Dasgupta takes an interesting approach – magic is fully magical and has its own internal logic, but science is also real and has parallels and applications within the story. Kiranmala discusses how astronomy and physics relate to her quest without ever losing the magic, thanks to a deft narrative hand.
While reading this book, I kept thinking about Easter Eggs – these things that used to be hidden on DVDs and video games, which weren’t much, weren’t necessary for the main game or story, but had extras for the fans who found them. This book is full of tidbits for cultural insiders. Dasgupta outlines a few in the back matter, and a few are easy to find, but I’m sure there were many that I completely missed. On the other hand, I was left with questions – like how exactly she was a princess?
Spoilers follow in this paragraph. The tags could be considered a major spoiler. Kiranmala was raised by a couple who constantly tell her she’s a princess without outright saying she’s adopted. In chapter 13, about a third of the way into the book, she finds out that the people who raised her are not biologically related to her. She briefly questions who she is, without a major reaction. That seems unusual, but also at this point she’s accepted a lot beyond credulity and the plot immediately requires action.
Spoilers still follow in this paragraph too. Quickly our heroine decides that she knows her parents love her and have never treated her differently, so she continues with the original plan of rescuing them. From that point on she refers to the parents that raised her as Ma and Baba, and uses father and Mother or birth mother to refer to her birth parents. Kiranmala is able to meet her birth parents, learns that her mother was not able to raise her and did not find her father a suitable parent.
Spoilers continue. Kiranmala is understandably delighted about meeting her birth mother in person when she learns about that option in chapter 23. But she’s not immediately competent in all things adoption – in the very next chapter she questions someone whose mother magically gained existence and wasn’t born. He calls her out and explains that his grandmother raised his mother.
Last paragraph of spoilers. Kiranmala’s situation doesn’t have any immediate parallel. Her parents legally are her parents in our dimension, but since the original intent was to return to their dimension, it can be seen as something of an extended guardianship. By the end of the book, when all three have chosen to return to their old lives and mutually accepted each other as permanent family, it feels much more like an adoption, especially as Kiranmala meets some of their relatives. End of spoilers.
Although the first-person protagonist is in 6th grade and has just turned 12 during the time period of this story, I felt like it skewed towards the upper middle grades. The minor swears irritated me, Kiranmala had plenty of attitude without needing that language (although I was happy when a parental figure eventually complained).
Romance is also touched on, with characters having crushes and attraction. I actually found this most obnoxious in the beginning when Kiranmala was obsessing over the physical appearance of the princes. By the end of the book, the friendships had progressed enough that romantic feelings could truly begin to develop, and things had settled.
I’m excited to continue this series. Kiranmala references a best friend several times, and I’d like to see where that leads, how things go once she’s able to sit down and talk with her parents, and of course what magical adventures are next for her and the princes! Recommended.