In the mythical land of Mahishmathi, the much-revered Gauriparvat looms large, dominating the landscape and the lives of the people. Deep inside Gauriparvat, lies the magical blue stones known as Gaurikanta, which when powdered, yield a dust used to forge weapons like none other.
These are stones more precious than anything else in this land, and for them, men will kill, maim, kidnap, and drive to death others.
Anand Neelakantan’s first book of the series, The Rise of Sivagami, is a prequel to S S Rajamouli’s blockbuster Baahubali. It is focused on the life of Shivudu, a man who, by a series of twists and turns, ends up returning to his rightful place in the grand palace of Mahishmathi, where a glimpse of the past shows us a tantalisingly strong-willed and intelligent woman, Sivagami, once wife of the would-be king.
The Rise of Sivagami is Neelakantan’s attempt to spin a tale that has Sivagami at its centre. It begins decades before the story of Baahubali, when an eighteen-year-old Sivagami sets out to find out the truth about her father, executed as a traitor when she was just five. Sivagami’s quest will lead her from the foster home where she has been brought up, to the royal palace, bringing her way unexpected friends, as well as unexpected enemies.
This is not, however, just the story of Sivagami herself. The cast of characters runs into dozens here. There are conniving and greedy government officials; traitors; a debauched prince who will let his libido govern everything he does.
There is the stubbornly loyal slave Kattappa, who will let nothing—not blood relations, not family ties, not even his own conscience—come in the way of what he sees as his duty. There are wily eunuchs, seductive prostitutes, women warriors, forest dwellers who are working silently together to topple the corrupt regime that rules Mahishmathi.
Love, lust, greed, ambition, pride, loyalty, treachery, and more come together in a roller coaster ride of a book: the pace never flags, and the immensely complex but well-plotted storyline never loses steam. Neelakantan’s ploy, of switching perspectives from one chapter to another, of swift changes of setting, character, and motive, works well to keep the story hurtling along.
This is an engrossing fantasy novel, but two important details mark it as more than just a great entertainer. One is the feistiness of several of its female characters.
Sivagami herself is a strong-willed, focused young woman who, despite being driven by a need for vengeance, is compassionate and kind. Ally, Achi Nagamma, and their fellow women warriors, too, are refreshing departures from the norm: women who make their own choices, women who carve their own destinies.
The other interesting thing about The Rise of Sivagami is the occasional reflection of issues that are age-old, as relevant today as they might have been in ancient India (or a mythological ‘ancient’ India).
Socialism, the struggle between poor and wealthy, weak and powerful, the need to crush the corrupt and power-hungry: all of these are there, but there are other, more insightful, instances: “…You always say bad things about our country. Traitors, all are traitors except me and those who agree with me…” A fine adventure, and one that promises to be the start of a gripping series.