“Hero. The word slithered nastily in his mind. An honour bestowed upon you when you had killed all those who would have called you a mass murderer.”
If you, like me, were hesitant about Sons of Darkness because you don’t know anything about the Mahabharata, then I am here to tell you that you can throw those concerns out the window right now. This book stands completely on its own and it will sweep you off your feet, no matter your background or prior knowledge. It’s a sprawling character-driven grimdark fantasy like you’ve never seen before, and I have no doubts that it will entrance both eastern and western readers alike.
As soon as I read this absolute banger of a prologue, I knew I was in for something special. Whereas most grimdark fantasies have dirty and bleak settings, here Mohanty welcomes you into a rich, vibrant and honestly just all-round breathtaking world. However, that beauty soon proves to be quite deceptive, as this world is no less brutal than any other grimdark world you’ve encountered before. Right from the get-go, you will realise that the stakes are high, and absolutely nothing and no one can be trusted at face value.
Now, this is a truly sprawling epic with a multi-layered plot following a large and diverse cast of characters spread out over all corners of the map. And while I realise that it might sound overwhelming, there honestly wasn’t a single moment that I personally felt confused or lost.
The book is divided up into 8 parts that each focus on only two or three of the POV characters at a time, which made the story a lot more approachable to me. The first 25-30% definitely require some trust and patience from the reader, but if there was ever a book where the pay-off is worth it, then it’s here.
Each new part of the book only got more and more exciting for me as new characters were introduced and storylines started to converge in exciting yet often cataclysmic ways. There’s a sense of anticipatory dread that just permeates every aspect of this story from the very first page and I loved how the tension kept building, all leading up to one of the most thrilling final battle sequences I have ever read. Mohanty juggles all the disparate story threads with effortless grace and weaves them all together into a truly magnificent tapestry.
Add to all of this the fact that the character work is simply out of this world, and this quickly proved to be an incredibly compelling and gripping grimdark fantasy.
Both the main cast and the numerous secondary and tertiary characters just leapt off the page with their strong and vibrant personalities, which made it so easy to latch onto them and distinguish them all in my mind. These are Abercrombie-level complex characters with their quick wit, dry observations, and sharp minds, but here they are also deliciously desi!
There were definitely some that I was more emotionally invested in than others, but there truly wasn’t a single POV character that I didn’t enjoy reading about. I think the more intimate and grounded storylines worked better for me as a character-driven reader, but there’s no denying that all the geopolitical scheming and grand scope war sequences were also brilliantly written.
I particularly enjoyed seeing how the prominent themes of vengeance and ambition manifested in unique ways in every single character’s personal journey. Because especially when you follow such morally grey characters, that fiery ambition and quest for vengeance can result in some truly shocking actions and brutal back stabbings and betrayals, which I absolutely loved.
Other difficult themes of classism, oppression, disability, and sexism were also seamlessly woven into the narrative and handled with a lot of sensitivity and care, which added so much depth to the story and characters. I always love a good underdog story and the way that some characters use their perceived weaknesses to their own gain was super fascinating to explore. There is some great character growth that we get to witness and some of the character arcs were surprising and unexpected in the most satisfying way possible.
Also, a very big round of applause to the author for creating some of the best female characters in the entire SFF genre, and in a deeply patriarchal world at that!
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some brutal scenes that showcase the deep sexism and devastating violence against women, but they are clearly not included for the sake of shock-value and I think they were handled in a delicate and tactful manner.
Satyabhama the war mistress with her warrior band of Silver Wolves, Mati the rebellious pirate princess, Draupadi the trophee princess who takes back her own agency, and Masha the Oracle whose prophecy lies at the heart of this story all just absolutely stole the show for me, even though we see them for only a couple of sections of this book. Truly, if there was one quibble I had with this entire book, it’s that I just wanted more of these kick-ass female characters on page. Though, I have a feeling that we will get more of that in the rest of the series, so I am very excited to see where some of their stories go.
Speaking of things that I want to see more of… this story features chakra and mandala magic that absolutely entranced me. As someone who practises yoga and meditation every single day, I loved this spiritual type of magic and I desperately want to see more of it! Much like in Martin’s ASOIAF, magic is viewed more as something of the distant past and it’s treated with a lot of superstition, though there are certain races/groups of people who have held onto the ancient knowledge and practices.
It’s really no surprise that Nala’s storyline quickly became one of my favourites, as that one came closest to fulfilling the magic apprentice in a sort of magical school setting trope, though in a way you’ve never seen before!
How Mohanty retells an ancient epic while wearing his modern influences on his sleeve without the story ever feeling unoriginal or like a rip-off is just completely beyond me.
After finishing this book, I was already deeply impressed by what he pulled off here, but then I watched some author interviews and that only made me appreciate the bold and unique storytelling even more. Again, you don’t have to know anything about The Mahabharata to appreciate and adore this story, but when you realise how cleverly Mohanty reinvented familiar characters and how deftly he wove Indian mythology into his own unique narrative, I will guarantee you that you will be left completely awe-struck.
Deadly political intrigue, exhilarating battles, thrilling duels, ethereal magic, ominous prophecies, meddling gods, mythological beings, utterly immersive world building, and a cast of deliciously dark and desi characters; this book truly has it all.
Sons of Darkness is truly a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre and it will undoubtedly leave you hungering for more in the best way possible.
*Thanks to NetGalley and Head of Zeus for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.