Aditi Khorana on privilege and feminism in The Library of Fates

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Jul 17, 2017

You may remember that I mentioned Mirror in the Sky, the debut novel from Aditi Khorana, as a YA sci-fi novel you really need to pick up. I loved the way the author melded science and science fiction with the touching coming of age of a South Asian teen. Now Khorana is back with a follow-up; she changes direction with her second novel, The Library of Fates, going full fantasy to tell the story of a young woman named Amrita, Princess of the Kingdom of Shalingar.

Princess Amrita has had an idyllic life; despite the absence of her mother (and her father’s refusal to discuss the subject), the young princess has never wanted for anything. But when Sikander, the violent leader of a neighboring kingdom, comes seeking Amrita’s hand as the price for peace, Amrita is ready to do her duty. Yet when an oracle warns Amrita that things may not go as planned, she begins to wonder what she will sacrifice to keep her kingdom and those she loves safe.

As you can read in the interview below, Khorana was kind enough to thoughtfully answer some questions about The Library of Fates for SYFY WIRE ...

You start out The Library of Fates with an author’s note discussing the major theme of the book, about the consequences of selfishness versus sacrifice. Why did you decide to make it explicit? And why did you choose to place it at the beginning of the book, rather than the end?

I didn't want to bury this idea at the end of the book. Typically, I don't always love it when authors frame their work for readers. I'm normally of the mindset that as an author, you write a book and then it's out in the world and takes on a new life of its own. But I was in the middle of copy edits just as the election happened, and I started hearing from a number of my readers — young women, immigrants, people of color — who were devastated about what this election meant for them.

As an immigrant, a woman, a PoC, I know firsthand what it's like to feel like a second-class citizen in my own country, and I felt the need to address this sentiment — and the grief we were all feeling. I also wanted the book to be read through the lens of current political events. We need new stories and new myths to reflect new times. Despots, dictators and autocratic regimes are not new to humankind, but women banding together to fight back — that's a story we don't see or hear often enough. I wanted to create new myth that was both cathartic and empowering for women, and I wanted to make that point as explicitly as possible.

The Library of Fates is based on Indian folklore. What was the first seed for the novel? How much of it is based on folk tales, and how much did you invent?

The first seed of the novel actually came from my research about Syrian refugees for another project. As I mentioned before, I'm an immigrant, and my grandparents were refugees in a newly independent India, so movement, loss — and particularly the loss of home — are significant issues for me, but also important issues of our time. In 2015, the UN High Commission for Refugees reported that 65.3 million people were displaced that year. That's like the population of Beijing, Shanghai, New York and Delhi combined.

It's also rare to see Eastern traditions reflected in literature, particularly in fantasy, and I wanted to bring some of my culture and history to the story. So the idea of vetals — essentially South Asian vampires — was something I borrowed from Indian lore. The idea of reincarnation was another idea that plays heavily into the story, but a lot of the book — and particularly the setting — is invented.

Your last book, Mirror in the Sky, was a sort of contemporary sci-fi. These books are so different; can you talk a little about your background in both these genres?

The early seeds of a book for me are usually thematic. I want to explore certain ideas, and genre is secondary — I try and find the best vehicle to tell the story. Mirror in the Sky was a book about belonging, race, class, about what happens to the choices we don't make, and the paths we don't choose. It's more speculative than straight sci-fi, which is the kind of sci-fi that I really love. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood, and love TV shows like Westworld and Battlestar Galactica.

The Library of Fates deals with broader themes that felt particularly suited to fantasy. I wanted to explore this idea of the life we create when everything has been lost, and also tell a story of female friendship through an intersectional feminist lens.

You bring a rich Indian setting to life in The Library of Fates. Did you do any historical research, or did the details of the world come from your imagination?

It was a combination of both. I borrowed from different traditions and different eras, because South Asian myth is so diverse and complex. Shalingar obviously doesn't exist, because there is no mythic utopia in the world, no society or kingdom or culture I could find that hasn't engaged in some sort of transgression against the rights of some population of people. What I really wanted to explore was the intersection of colonialism and feminism. Colonialism as the attack, capture and erasure of a native land and its culture, and feminism as a radical (because it is, even in our time) belief that a woman's right to assert that her body and mind are her own, and not the property of her husband, father, the state, or any other individual or group, and the interplay between those ideas.

India has been colonized many times, by many groups, from the Indo-Aryan migration in 1800 B.C. to the East India Tea Company, and dozens of other conquests in between, and I wanted to speak to that, and to the effects of colonialism. What is adopted as the dominant culture post-invasion isn't always better or smarter or more equitable. In fact, it usually isn't. In the case of Shalingar, it ceases to be a mythic utopia the moment Amrita's father makes the decision to hand off Amrita in marriage to Sikander — even as he doesn't believe that women are property. So this compromise of a critical belief — every individual's right to her own life — is what sets the story in motion and allows for the attack of Shalingar, aka, mythic utopia that doesn't exist and was barely hanging on by a thread in a world that is just so dark and corrupt. Compromise (both the good and the bad kind) is a major theme in the novel.

Amrita is a strong and capable young woman who’s lived a sheltered life. What do you hope readers take away from her journey?

I didn't want Amrita to be likable at the beginning of the story. She's sort of spoiled and entitled. Well-intentioned, yes, and she cares about those she loves, but she's flawed and complicated. But life — and particularly crisis — has the capacity to transform even the most unlikable characters. I wanted readers to give her a chance to learn from the world, as we all do. I also wanted to create a character who uses her abilities to help others, to make the world more just and equitable, rather than worse off. I think this is because I spend a lot of time thinking about privilege, and how we use our privilege in the world. I want to believe that a lot of people are invested in using their privilege for good, but we're seeing the abuse of privilege from the highest echelons of our government today, and it's grotesque at best, dangerous at worst.

The South Asian SFF scene has become much richer in recent years. Can you recommend any recent sci-fi and fantasy books by South Asian (or general PoC!) authors you’ve enjoyed?

I recently read Cindy Pon's Want and loved it. I was also really inspired by Roshani Choksi's Star-Touched Queen. Not recent, but I love anything by N.K Jemisin, Octavia Butler and Malinda Lo.

What’s next for you? Will we read more about Amrita in the future, or do you have another book in the works?

All I can say is that I'm working on experimental feminist fiction right now. It's contemporary, it's dark, and it challenges the conventions of the novel as well as the conventions that women are often forced to abide by. I'm really enjoying working on it.