A family's legacy has the power to save or destroy their country.
How do you shoulder the expectations of legacy?
For many, we’re taught that we must honor our legacy in a specific way. The expectations never include growing as individuals, forging paths that others could only dream about.
Sometimes those who bestow such a legacy expect us to emulate their actions, even if doesn't serve us. Being your family’s legacy can be a source of pride as much misery, and the royal siblings of Ashoka are no different.
Akshaya Raman’s debut book “The Ivory Key” shows us a fractured royal family desperately trying to escape their legacyin different ways. When a magical artifact resurfaces that could solve their problems, Vira, Ronak, Riya, and Kaleb begin to imagine a different life.
The Magic is Running Out
For Maharani Vira, her legacy began the day her mother was assassinated.
Occuring just before a major battle, Vira was ill-equiped to lead her mother’s army to victory. Vira, already grieving her mother, started her reign by losing the battle and consequently some of her country’s land. At 18 years old, she’s inherited war and a country on the brink of ruin. Eight months after that loss Vira still has nightmares.
Then Vira finds out that magic, the physical resource fundamental to Ashokan culture, is running out. Her legacy, and her country, are at stake.
As the heir to the kingdom of Ashoka, Vira couldn’t be anything outside of a maharani. She was expected to impersonate her mother, not entertaining that she could be different. So she leads in the only way she knows how, by emulating her late mother.
“[Vira] hadn’t intended to emulate her mother’s style so closely, but it had been easier in those early days–after Amma died and Vira had unexpectedly become the maharani–to dress like her. To armor herself with beautiful silk and expensive jewelry and hope that no one saw how terrified she was underneath it all.”
So she does what her mother would have done. She stations more troops at the border walls where the magic is the weakest, and raises taxes to pay the expense. She halts trade agreements for magic. She arranges Ronak’s marriage for a political and financial alliance. And of course, like the previous maharanis, she keeps the reason a secret from her people.
She has to find a way to solve this problem, but if she imitates her predecessors, it won’t end well. Once her enemies find out their magic is depleting, she’ll lose the entire kingdom.
So when an opportunity presents itself to find the legendary Ivory Key, rumored to lead its holder to incomprehensible amounts of magic, Vira finally has hope. If she can piece together its location, she could save Ashoka.
But her siblings want the Ivory Key for their own reasons.
Repairing Strained Family Relations: The Deadly Treasure Hunting Method
While Vira desperately tries keeping the country together, her siblings have their own predicaments. Her half-brother, Kaleb, was falsely convicted and imprisoned for their mother’s assasination. Her younger sister, Riya, ran away years earlier to join a Robinhood-esque thieves guild dedicated to dethroning the Maharani. And her twin brother, Ronak, is negotiating with an underground criminal empire to be free of his “crown” and his arranged marriage.
You could say their relationship is strained.
The royal siblings were never close. While Vira and Kaleb followed their parent’s footsteps as the Maharani and the palace magic worker (mayaka), Riya and Ronak lived in their shadows. Ronak was only thought as a means of political alliance, and Riya as a warrior. Both of them only existed to serve the crown, namely Vira. Becoming the after-thoughts fueled their anger towards Vira, especially when they saw her emulating their mother so closely.
It takes a perilous treasure hunt in the book’s second half for the sibling’s relationship to shift. They must contribute their individual strengths and work as a team to save their country, or die trying. While the tonal shift is more adventurous (and gives us some romantic development), the focus is on the siblings and their individual relationships.
Throughout the insanity that is their adventure, they begin to understand how they had been affected by their mother’s life, and what they struggled with after her death. The only way to solve this problem isn’t to avoid it or double down on efforts that aren’t working, but to find a way to move forward. That often means confronting issues head-on.
Seriously, Just Talk to Each Other!
Review writer Audrey put my feelings into words when she said, “The lack of communication or willingness to extend grace to Vira quickly became annoying—but that may just be the eldest daughter in me talking.” I heavily sympathized with Vira and found it unbelievably frustrating while the other siblings continued to be against her.
How many quarrels could’ve been prevented by simple communication? Countless. But how many times was that ever modeled for us? Likely never. The royal siblings are no different.
I wholeheartedly agree that some chapters from Riya’s and Ronak’s viewpoints absolutely aggravated me. Many things could have cleared up with communication! But if anything, Raman writes the miscommunication with intention. It feels aggravating because many of us have lived it. It also gives credit to Raman to craft characters so real that they aggravate us!
Choosing Your Legacy
The sibling’s journey is a figurative one as much as a physical one. Searching for The Ivory key requires interpreting clues, solving puzzles, and creatively avoiding death. All the “obvious” answers are the incorrect ones. If they really want the artifact, they’ll need to choose differently than those before them. By adolescence, our worldview is largely formed. We get our definition of success from those who have molded us. In our community, that usually means a lucrative job, marriage, kids, and a white picket fence. And in some cases, when we start chasing it, it doesn’t feel right. It’s sold to us that we have two choices: success and failure.
But there’s more than one path to success.
All four siblings want freedom because they believe there’s only one way to fulfill their legacy. Breaking out of patterns and predetermined roles are difficult, especially when you were never shown how to be anything else.
“Two weeks ago [Riya had] known exactly who she was and what she stood for. Now she had no idea. It was unfair that there weren’t any clear-cut answers. That there was no way to know what choice would lead to the outcomes she wanted.”
We get stuck on the choices explicitly presented to us, fearing that any deviation will be catastrophic. That can seem like the only available reality, even if that’s what they meant to do or not. But freedom is not running away from your legacy – it is turning to face it with an open mind, and making it yours.
Raman’s choice to focus on the sibling’s relationship and finding a lasting solution to save Ashoka was a beautiful thing. I found myself reflecting on it for days after finishing the book. The sibling’s bravery, especially Vira’s, lies in their willingness to look for the truth their predecessor’s didn’t have the ability to face. And in facing those problems together, they have a better chance of healing their relationships as much as their country.
To take the time to explore different options is necessary. In some cases, it comes out of privilege because those before you broke the generational patterns. In other cases, you’ll have to do it out of necessity.
I’m Ready for the Second Book!
The story is a wonderful fantasy based in world inspired by Indian culture. I loved the fact that the line of power was a matriarch, passing power through the families. I also loved the development between the siblings, which showed complex relationships and actually allowed them space to air our their feelings after years of not communicating with each other.
An incredible, and not-to-be-overlooked, aspect of the book was Raman’s authentic portrayal of food. It’s such a specific thing, but I felt an unparamounted happiness when I saw the characters enjoying rasamalai or rose milk. It made the world feel more real, and paid tribute to the real life regional cultures they come from. I started putting mango pickle on my morning toast because of it!
The book switches between 4 POV, one for each royal sibling, and follows each of their intentions for the Ivory Key. This part is amazing, because you can get inside the minds of each sibling and understand their motivation for wanting the Ivory Key. You also get an intimate understanding of their development as the story progresses.
While the 4 person POV let you get to know each character’s voices and motivations, the epilogue spiked my curiosity and has me anxiously awaiting Raman’s expansion into the world. I’m looking forward to any other stories she writes in the future!
Anu Kumar is a South Asian-American scientist and writer living in Paris, France. Born to South Indian immigrants in the US then relocating to France, she is passionate about exploring and understanding the intersections of culture and identity in the global South Asian diaspora. She joined Pardesi in February 2021 as the Head Editor, helping South Asian women and non-binary individuals tell their stories and develop their writing skills. She has bylines in Huffington Post, Hinduism Today, WONK! Science, and actively writes on Medium.