When A Spark of White Fire begins, 17-year-old Esmae is preparing for a great challenge. The Titania, the greatest warship ever built — so great, it was built by a god — is up for grabs in a competition. Alexi Rey, the deposed prince, is a favorite to win. He’s supposed to be on the throne aboard the Kali, the incredible spaceship kingdom, but his blind uncle took over and forced the prince and his family into exile. Instead, Alexi is fighting for his birthright and his kingdom.
Esmae is sympathetic to Alexi and the royal family’s plight, but she wants to get her hands on Titania. After all, Kali is her home as well, and she believes it’s the only way she can return. But can a scrappy orphan beat the exiled crown prince, who is both handsome and capable? All Esmae has to rely on is her wits, her training, and the secret of her true identity, one that burns at her very core.
This is the premise of A Spark of White Fire, the first book in a duology. It’s a space opera based on the Hindu epic The Mahabarata, and it’s just as fantastic as that description makes it sound. Esmae is at the heart of the story, desperate to do the “right” thing. The problem is, it’s not clear what the right thing is, or who the right people are. As is always true in real life, things are much, much more complicated than they seem.
After Esmae arrives aboard Kali with a silent, secret promise to help Alexi regain the spaceship kingdom’s throne, things get very complicated. She’s beloved by the gods; they even appear to her sometimes, which is a rare gift. But that’s not enough to protect Esmae aboard the ship, where those who claim she is welcome also try to undermine her at every turn. Author Sangu Mandanna writes the equivalent of court intrigue aboard a spaceship very well. Esmae shows her naivete at first — after all, she was raised in an orphanage and isn’t accustomed to the customs of a royal court. But she’s sharp and a quick learner, and soon she learns how to navigate the treacherous world she’s presented with.
But there’s a problem with Esmae’s grand plan: The royal family aboard Kali, which is ruled by the blind king Elvar, the elder brother of Alexi’s father who was passed over because of his disability, isn’t what Esmae thought. It’s hard to fault Elvar for wanting his birthright, just as Esmae sympathizes with Alexi for wanting his. And then there’s Max, the king’s adopted son. The romance in the book is understated, which is welcome, given that Esmae has a war to stop. Dating isn't really at the top of her priority list.
Mandanna excels at depicting a conflicted heart. Esmae finds herself at a loss as to what to do, sympathizing with both sides and hoping she can engineer a peaceful end to the conflict. It’s a fun space opera, to be sure, but it’s also a great novel of politics in a time of cold war.
That world is epic, to say the least. The universe in Mandanna’s novel is one of spaceships, spaceship kingdoms, and the planets they surround. It’s a creative setting, and it’s fascinating to receive bits of information that round it out as the novel progresses. This is a very lived-in setting; the reader gets the sense it’s been around for centuries and it will continue to exist long after the last pages are turned. The reader is merely witnessing one story of the hundreds or thousands that take place there on a daily basis.
But Mandanna doesn’t forget the seeds upon which A Spark of White Fire is built. The gods are everpresent throughout the novel, granting boons and delivering prophecies. In the hands of a lesser writer, the mix of the two might seem forced and awkward, but Mandanna’s descriptions are so rich that it’s easy to suspend disbelief and just soak in the story she’s written. In her capable hands, it’s completely natural for the gods to warn Esmae against competing in a tournament to win a grand spaceship. She, of course, defies them.
If you’re looking for a spectacular and immersive read that you’ll want to finish in one sitting, A Spark of White Fire should absolutely be on your list. It's an incredible story, and it will be a difficult wait for its sequel.