Thursday, May 10, 2018

Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava Quartet #1) by Roshani Chokshi

Saving the world and fighting a demon sounds easier than dealing with school and friends for Aru Shah. Her constant push to try and fit in has meant exaggerations and lies to classmates. When a trio of 7th graders show up at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture where she lives with her mother to see if she is in Paris for the holidays, she has to do some quick lying again; however, her classmates ain't buying it. The bullies are convinced that Aru doesn't belong at their elite prep school where fancy cars and exotic trips are the norm. Her world involves taking care of herself while mom is off on trips and giving museum tours for fun.

When the classmates dare Aru to light a cursed antiquity lamp she ends up awakening the Sleeper... oops. She thinks of her mom's warning to not light the lamp, like those “generic warnings parents gave to kids, like 'Don’t go outside without sunscreen or you’ll burn!' Or, as the woman who ran the local Hindu temple’s summer day camp liked to remind Aru: 'Don’t go outside without sunscreen or you’ll get darker and won’t find a husband!' Until it happened, who cared? Aru had never gotten sunburned, and she really didn’t need to find a husband at age twelve." She didn't really believe her mom and had no clue she'd have to battle a demon. Great dialogue, fast pacing, funny gods and hysterical characters make this a winner for fans of Rick Riordan's books. Roshani Chokshi's uses familiar fantasy tropes and much of the humor is a parody of hero narratives while following the monomyth. A laugh-aloud middle-grade adventure using Indian mythology.

After lighting the lamp everyone freezes and a guardian who helps Aru on her quest comes in the form of a snarky pigeon. The author is poking fun at several fantasy tropes. Here the guardian is in a frail body and frustrated that he has to mentor a young girl. Aru is the reincarnated soul of one of the Pandava brothers from the Indian epic poem, Mahabharata; however, she lacks the wisdom and athleticism found in the poem's male heroes. Aru thinks of the pigeon as a “rat with wings” and is not impressed by him either. Meanwhile, the pigeon knocks her for being a kid hero and sees the world ending versus her saving it. When she looks at her frozen mom and classmates asking if they would be stuck that way, the pigeon answers: “It’s temporary,” said the bird. “Provided you aren’t riddled with ineptitude.” “In-ep-tee-tood? Is that French?” The bird knocked its head against the wooden banister. “The universe has a cruel sense of humor,” it moaned. Aru may be green when it comes to quests but she proves her bravery as the plot moves forward.

When Aru links up with another reincarnated soul it comes in the form of Mini, a slightly neurotic girl obsessed with germs, Oreo cookies, and death. When Mini shoves an Oreo cookie into Boo's mouth he says, “What ambrosia is this?” He smacked his beak. “Gimme more.”Mini quotes dictionaries and medical books and can't believe she was chosen for the quest instead of her brother. She diagnoses Aru when she talks back to Time explaining that Aru has “Type One Insufferable-ness.” Her character arc progresses from a kid who shrinks at danger to one accepting the inevitable task of saving the world. When Mini first meets Aru, she asks, “I hope you don’t have a bee allergy. I only have one EpiPen. But I guess we could share? I’ll stab you, you stab me?” The pigeon getting a double-dose of inept heroines does a face-plant asking "whyGodwhyme." The heroes embrace the poster-boy or girl image of a superhero from Aru yelling Batman sayings, wearingSpider-man pajamas, asking Boo for capes, to elbow-bumping instead of fist-bumping with Mini. Germs on the fist, Mini points out, and Aru thinks capes are like blankies that bring comfort to superheroes.

Spoiler alert - okay... I might be telling too much of the story at this point. You could maybe read the next paragraph.

On their quest, they search for "celestial" weapons to help them save the world. They dream of magnificent, heroic swords to wield and instead get a bouncy ball and compact. Mini bangs her compact on the ground hoping it will start working during one scene where they are facing the enemy. When the weapons do activate the heroines have no control over them. They also remind characters throughout that they are heroines, not heroes. They are told that heroines are demanding and brave while the heroes let their magical sidekicks do all the work. Part of Aru's character arc is realizing that being overlooked and not considered worthy opponents could be used to her advantage. Their physical weaknesses are a strength. Plus, she's funny as she thinks stuff such as “And it stood to reason that if you were even a little bit divine, you should not have a unibrow.” She also learns that heroes doubt themselves. At the climax, she discovers that the definition of heroism was fighting for the people she cared about in the world.

Spoiler... I think. The next paragraph might be okay too.  Can you tell I don't quite recognize if I'm spoiling it for the reader?

While the author uses Indian culture and mythology, I kept thinking of Western folktales as well. There was an east-west blend for me. Parts reminded me of the Phantom Tollbooth ...perhaps because they end up in a tollbooth. Actually, the puns, word plays, and wit are what reminded me of it. From Polly Esther to the "-allys" it is pretty funny. Or the scene where the dead speak sentences backward because they can no longer go forward. Their third test is to get the celestial keys and one of the trials is to take a bite out of adulthood which Aru does literally when she finds a book titled, “Adulthood”. I like the imagery of a young protagonist that is coming-of-age taking a bite out of adulthood literally and figuratively. Great chapter headings such as “#1 on Mini’s Top Ten Ways I Don't Want to Die List: Death by Halitosis" add to the humor along with pop culture references such as Johnny Cash. Aru wants to nickname the bird "Sue", short for Sabula, but he says he is male. She asks if he's heard Johnny Cash's song, "A Boy Named Sue" which is about a boy named, Sue, who goes to kill his dad for naming him a girl's name only to find out that the dad said he named him that to make him tough. She settles on "Boo" for a nickname.

Okay, stop! Now I am definitely spoiling the story. If you have a great memory you might not want to read on.

The legend of Shukra is the author using her own creative powers that mixes folktales. Aru and Mini must cross the Bridge of Forgetting that is guarded by Shukra, a man cursed for killing his wife out of vanity. He is surrounded by mirrors as protection against memory-stealing snowflakes and anyone that wants to cross must give him all their memories or fall into the "fires of hell and be forced into the next life". He is a metaphor for the choices people make in life. He does not want to break the mirrors because bad karma will follow him into the next life. As he begins to steal Mini and Aru's memories, Aru goes after him but is cursed in the process. He reminded me of Marley in "A Christmas Carol" who forged long chains through greed. Shakru's "chains" are his mirrors and vanity led to him murdering his wife. He discusses being robbed of the past, present, and future. He's talking about karma but I kept thinking of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. It's the same idea. The mirrors also reminded me of the Snow Queen and shards of glass that cursed the children in the story. Here, Shakru curses Aru as he moves on to reincarnation.

Aru's character arc involves coming to terms with her lies that are good and bad. She tells Mini the truth for the first time when she is exposed for not telling Mini she lit the lamp in the first place. Aru realizes that she lies to imagine “the world as it could be and not as it was.” She pulls out Adulthood coin upon this realization showing her growing up and coming-of-age. When Mini rejects her in anger at lighting the lamp, Aru reacts with courage and anger. She doesn’t roll over. She thinks about stories and how they are told: "The truth of  a story depends on who is telling it." She can write her own narrative. 

In another trial at the Palace of Illusions, Aru must escape her fears of being abandoned by her mother and being alone. She thinks, “People are a lot like magical pockets. They’re far bigger on the inside than they appear to be on the outside.” The Palace is alive and creates an illusion where Aru thinks she will die. She has to look at herself to escape the illusion, a metaphor for having to realize that her illusions and lies stem from fears. I think. The idea isn't really hashed out enough. I do find the Palace represents childhood and what is left behind when becoming an adult. It cries and tries to keep Mini and Aru kids by giving them everything they wish for and playing with them such as riding bikes and eating ice cream. A child's imagination dims over time and that is worth crying over. The Palace gives the two girls a tile to remind them of it and "home". The tile can be a metaphor for adults who hold on to their imaginations and memories of childhood can be storytellers in society. The Palace says “It is better, perhaps, to be thought of as a fiction than to be discarded from memory completely.” Again, the ideas are not completely fleshed out and it is up the reader to put their own interpretation on the plot. I felt teased by many of the metaphors but thought some of the thoughts came up short. A fun and funny book.

4 Smileys

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