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'The Library of Fates' has clever mythology, delicious language

Aditi Khorana's young adult novel sets up a stunning premise but falters en route to conclusion.

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The Library of Fates
By Aditi Khorana
Penguin Young Readers
336 pp.

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In the idyllic kingdom of Shalingar, a sort of fictional Bhutan, the king and his daughter prepare to welcome the most feared conqueror and commander ever known – Sikander (a repellent riff on Alexander the Great). The chance of Shalingar remaining free after his visit is slim, so Princess Amrita is steeling herself to be married off and spend the rest of her days in the metropolitan city of Macedon.

When everything goes pear-shaped, Amrita becomes a fugitive, on the run with an oracle and former slave of Sikander named Thala. Thala promises her that if they can make it to the mythical Library of All Things, they can erase all the tragedies of their pasts and undo what has just happened. Together, Amrita and Thala embark on a quest to save their respective worlds, embracing history and mythology along the way.

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Aditi Khorana’s The Library of Fates is a classic example of a book that sets up a stunning premise but trips on its own shoelaces in the rush to fulfill it.

Let’s begin with honest praise: Khorana’s mythology is exceedingly clever. The interplay of mortals with mythical beings known as “Diviners” and “vetalas” was strong. Plus, Khorana opens with a Shalingarsh parable about the earth before mankind, and you’d better believe it’s baked into every chapter that follows.

In addition, Khorana’s use of language is delicious. While watching Sikander’s welcome procession from her balcony high above the capital, Amrita muses, “There was always beauty here. Shabahaat. It was one of my favorite Shalingarsh words. It meant beauty, grace. Our language had nearly fifty words for the different varieties of beauty, but Shabahaat also included a certain subtext; it alluded to how beauty made one feel: full, whole, transformed.”

You’ve almost certainly experienced “shabahaat” – perhaps the deep satisfaction of that one perfect moment, or the transcendence of viewing a masterpiece or favorite work of art.

Amrita’s initial assessment of Sikander the Great is equally striking: “His face looked weathered, severe, humorless. There was no evidence of all those victories. Or maybe it was evidence of what a lifetime of military victories can do to a person.”

There was so much to like in the first half – the palace scenes are so great – but what ultimately spelled the end was an unsteady hand with the pacing.

A lovely embroidery of small moments couldn’t mask the dropped stitches in the larger plot fabric. The pace of the first 10 chapters, kicking off the fugitive plotline, led me to believe that a brisk escape yarn was in store, then maybe some backstory for Amrita and Thala, leading up to a juicy cliffhanger and an inevitable book two.

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But instead, “The Library of Fates” slipped abruptly on the critical hinge chapters and found itself upside down and backwards, grappling with all the plot points at once, without the depth that an evenly-paced novel would have lent them.

Readers rarely, if ever, know what goes on pre-press or why a story ended up the length or shape that it did. This one makes me wonder, as it feels like the hinge material of Book Two was compressed into a dozen or so chapters.

(It’s worth mentioning that “The Library of Fates” is typeset with a breathy font and large leading. Two hundred pages just evanesce with that format.)

I found myself in a bit of a pickle with Princess Amrita, as well. She’s remarkably self-possessed, which isn’t altogether surprising, given her royal upbringing. She’s educated, insightful, diplomatic, and warm.

And yet, once again, I quibble with Khorana’s pacing. Amrita’s poise lends itself to a significant number of moments where it’s tricky to gauge whether her self-awareness is natural or narratorial. Amrita makes large-scale leaps in logic and emotion in the heat of a moment that, I confess, I could not in her place. Within mere hours of losing everything and everyone she’s ever known, a princess who has never really left her palace is calm, analytical, and empathetic. She doesn’t seem to need time to get to the clarity and self-knowledge, with brand-new information or a high-stakes circumstance, that I would expect of a 15-year-old girl. It’s extraordinary, unsettling presence of mind in a moment of tragedy.

I wish we could have had the time to see “The Library of Fates” ripen. It’s a peach that was picked too early – hard, a little tart, all the more disappointing because of its potential.