The Palace of Illusions

( 19 )


A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of the wife of an amazing woman.

Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new ...

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A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of the wife of an amazing woman.

Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new interpretation of this ancient tale.

The novel traces the princess Panchaali's life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands' most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Recasting the Indian epic Mahabharatafrom the perspective of Princess Panchaali, veteran novelist Divakaruni (Queen of Dream) offers a vivid and inventive companion to the renowned poem. Born from fire and marked with the prophecy that she will change the course of history, the strong-willed Panchaali declares early on that she won't spend her life merely supporting the men around her. Soon enough, she bucks tradition by simultaneously wedding all five famous Pandava brothers, who have been denied their rightful kingdom, and finds herself the happy mistress of the much-envied palace of illusions. Panchaali's joy is short-lived, however, when hubris, fate and the desire for vengeance in reclaiming the Pandavas' kingdom (all also prophesied) cause her and her husbands to make mistakes that have cascading political effects, shattering peace in the region. Devastation ensues, but spiritual remarks from the divine Krishna put life and death in a cosmic context. Despite an intrusive retrospective voice ("I didn't know then how would be tested") and a sometimes heavy-handed feminism, Divakaruni's rich, action-filled narrative contrasts well with the complex psychological portrait of a mythic princess. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Mahabharat, the Sanskrit epic of ancient India, tells of two noble families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who battle each other over rule of the Hastinapura kingdom. Divakaruni (The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming) retells this drama from the perspective of Panchaali, the wife of all five Pandava brothers. Born from fire, Panchaali has led an unusual life from the outset. Unlike other women, she has no interest in typical female endeavors; she would rather be tutored alongside her brother in the art of war and the machinations of ruling a kingdom. Also unlike other women, she is married to five men-all of whom love and respect her. But Panchaali's heart belongs to her husbands' enemy, the famous warrior Karna. Divakaruni has taken a male-centered story and breathed new life into its female characters, giving us a rich tale of passion and love, power and weakness, honor and humiliation. Whether or not readers are familiar with the Mahabharat epic, still fascinating and relevant several millennia on, they will enjoy this entertaining, insightful, and suspenseful story. Recommended for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/07.]
—Joy Humphrey

Kirkus Reviews
Divakaruni (Queen of Dreams, 2005, etc.) offers a quasi-feminist retelling of the great Hindu text known as the Mahabharata. Among the world's longest epic poems and dated to the 5th century BCE, the Mahabharata traces the dynasty of the Pandava brothers, from the circumstances of their birth to the great war fought for the honor of Panchaali to their last days in search of spiritual peace. Gods intervene, divine weapons waylay whole battalions, a fantastical palace inspires a war, yet Divakaruni manages to keep the story human and relevant, also about a woman, her marriage, her mother-in-law. The plot remains essentially true to the original, but here the story is narrated by Panchaali, born out of fire to avenge her father. It is decreed that she will change history, and she certainly begins well when she marries all five of the Pandava brothers (by a strange bit of misunderstanding, the brothers' mother insists that the brothers must share all of their good fortune). Panchaali becomes queen and builds for herself the Palace of Illusions, the most magnificent dwelling on earth, made of marble and magic. But Panchaali's worldly triumphs are paired with her spiritual failings: her pride, her need for vengeance and the secret love she holds for Karna, her husbands' greatest enemy. When her husband Yudhisthir loses their kingdom gambling, Panchaali and her husbands are forced into forest exile for 12 years, and when they re-emerge, they begin the war that will pit all the kings of India against each other, and will fulfill the prophesy of Panchaali's birth. Throughout the story, there is one constant in Panchaali's life-the benevolent presence of Krishna, her greatest friend (she vaguelysuspects he is divine) and ally. Occasionally the novel falls flat-decades and events flash by with mere mention, one suspects a result of compressing such a rich work into such a small space-but Divakaruni mostly succeeds in creating an intimate, feminine portrait that is both contemporary and timeless. An ambitious project effectively executed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400096206
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 361,276
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNI is the author of the bestselling novels Queen of Dreams, Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, and The Vine of Desire, and of the prizewinning story collections Arranged Marriage and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives. She lives in Houston, Texas, and teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.

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    1. Hometown:
      Houston, Texas, and San Jose, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 29, 1956
    2. Place of Birth:
      Kolkata, India
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Kolkata University 1976; Ph.D. in English, University of California at Berkeley, 1984
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Palace of Illusions A Novel
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Doubleday Copyright © 2008 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780385515993



Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story. And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth. I think I liked it so much because it made me feel special, and in those days there was little else in my life that did. Perhaps Dhai Ma realized this. Perhaps that was why she agreed to my demands even though we both knew I should be using my time more gainfully, in ways more befitting the daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal, one of the richest kingdoms in the continent of Bharat.

The story inspired me to make up fancy names for myself: Offspring of Vengeance, or the Unexpected One. But Dhai Ma puffed out her cheeks at my tendency to drama, calling me the Girl Who Wasn’t Invited. Who knows, perhaps she was more accurate than I.

This winter afternoon, sitting cross–legged in the meager sunlight that managed to find its way through my slit of a window, she said, “When your brother stepped out of the sacrificial fire onto the cold stone slabs of the palace hall, all theassembly cried out in amazement.”

She was shelling peas. I watched her flashing fingers with envy, wishing she would let me help. But Dhai Ma had very specific ideas about activities that were appropriate for princesses.

“An eyeblink later,” she continued, “when you emerged from the fire, our jaws dropped. It was so quiet, you could have heard a housefly fart.”

I reminded her that flies do not perform that particular bodily function.

She smiled her squint-eyed, cunning smile. “Child, the things you don’t know would fill the milky ocean where Lord Vishnu sleeps—and spill over its edges.”

I considered being offended, but I wanted to hear the story. So I held my tongue, and after a moment she picked up the tale again.

“We’d been praying for thirty days, from sun-up to sundown. All of us: your father, the hundred priests he’d invited to Kampilya to perform the fire ceremony, headed by that shifty-eyed pair, Yaja and Upayaja, the queens, the ministers, and of course the servants. We’d been fasting, too—not that we were given a choice—just one meal, each evening, of flattened rice soaked in milk. King Drupad wouldn’t eat even that. He only drank water carried up from the holy Ganga, so that the gods would feel obligated to answer his prayers.”

“What did he look like?”

“He was thin as the point of a sword, and hard like it, too. You could count every bone on him. His eyes, sunk deep into their sockets, glittered like black pearls. He could barely hold up his head, but of course he wouldn’t remove that monstrosity of a crown that no one has ever seen him without—not even his wives, I’ve heard, not even in bed.”

Dhai Ma had a good eye for detail. Father was, even now, much the same, though age—and the belief that he was finally close to getting what he’d wanted for so long—had softened his impatience.

“Some people,” she continued, “thought he was going to die, but I had no such fears. Anyone who wanted revenge as badly as your royal father did wouldn’t let go of body and breath so easily.” She chewed ruminatively on a handful of peas.

“Finally,” I prompted her, “it was the thirtieth day.”

“And I for one was heartily thankful. Milk and rice husk is all very well for priests and widows, but give me fish curry with green chilies and tamarind pickle any day! Besides, my throat was scraped raw from gabbling all those unpronounceable Sanskrit words. And my buttocks, I swear, they were flat as chapatis from sitting on that freezing stone floor.

“But I was scared, too, and stealing a glance here and there, I saw I wasn’t the only one. What if the fire ceremony didn’t work the way the scriptures had claimed it would? Would King Drupad put us all to death, claiming we hadn’t prayed hard enough? Once I’d have laughed if someone had suggested our king might do that. But things had changed since the day when Drona appeared at court.”

I wanted to ask about Drona, but I knew what she’d say.

Impatient as mustard seeds sputtering in oil, that’s what you are, even though you’re old enough to be married off any day now! Each story will come in its time.

“So when your royal father stood up and poured that last pot of ghee into the flames, we all held our breath. I prayed harder than I’d ever done in my life—though it wasn’t for your brother I was praying, not exactly. Kallu, who was cook’s apprentice then, had been courting me, and I didn’t want to die before I’d experienced the joys of having a man in my bed. But now that we’ve been married for seven years—” Here Dhai Ma paused to snort at the folly of her younger self.

If she got onto the subject of Kallu, I wouldn’t hear the rest of the story today.

“Then the smoke rose,” I interjected, with experienced dexterity.

She allowed herself to be pulled back into the tale. “Yes, and a spiraling, nasty-smelling black smoke it was, with voices in it. The voices said, Here is the son you asked for. He’ll bring you the vengeance you desire, but it’ll break your life in two.

I don’t care about that, your father said. Give him to me.

“And then your brother stepped from the fire.”

I sat up straight to listen better. I loved this part of the story. “What did he look like?”

“He was a true prince, that one! His brow was noble. His face shone like gold. Even his clothes were golden. He stood tall and unafraid, though he couldn’t have been more than five years old. But his eyes troubled me. They were too soft. I said to myself, How can this boy avenge King Drupad? How can he kill a fearsome warrior like Drona?

I worried about my brother, too, though in a different way. He would succeed in completing the task he was born for, I had no doubt of that. He did everything with such meticulous care. But what would it do to him?

I didn’t want to think of it. I said, “And then?”

Dhai Ma made a face. “Can’t wait till you appear, eh, Madam Full of Yourself?” Then she relented.

“Even before we’d finished cheering and clapping, even before your father had a chance to greet your brother, you appeared. You were as dark as he was fair, as hasty as he was calm. Coughing from the smoke, tripping over the hem of your sari, grabbing for his hand and almost sending him tumbling, too—”

“But we didn’t fall!”

“No. Somehow you managed to hold each other up. And then the voices came again. They said, Behold, we give you this girl, a gift beyond what you asked for. Take good care of her, for she will change the course of history.”

“ ‘Change the course of history’! Did they really say that?”

Dhai Ma shrugged. “That’s what the priests claimed. Who can tell for sure? You know how sounds boom and echo in that hall. The king looked startled, but then he picked the two of you up, holding you close to his chest. For the first time in years, I saw him smile. He said to your brother, I name you Dhristadyumna. He said to you, I name you Draupadi. And then we had the best feast this kingdom has ever seen.”

As Dhai Ma counted out the feast foods on her fingers, smacking her lips in happy remembrance, my attention veered to the meaning of the names our father chose. Dhristadyumna, Destroyer of Enemies. Draupadi, Daughter of Drupad.

Dhri’s name fell within the bounds of acceptability—though if I were his parent I might have picked a more cheerful appellation, like Celestial Victor, or Light of the Universe. But Daughter of Drupad? Granted, he hadn’t been expecting me, but couldn’t my father have come up with something a little less egoistic? Something more suited to a girl who was supposed to change history?

I answered to Draupadi for the moment because I had no choice. But in the long run, it would not do. I needed a more heroic name.

Nights, after Dhai Ma had retired to her quarters, I lay on my high, hard bed with its massive posts and watched the oil lamp fling flickery shadows against the pocked stone of the walls. I thought of the prophecy then, with yearning and fear. I wanted it to be true. But did I have the makings of a heroine—courage, perseverance, an unbending will? And shut up as I was inside this mausoleum of a palace, how would history even find me?

But most of all I thought of something that Dhai Ma didn’t know, something that ate at me like the rust corroding the bars on my window: what really happened when I stepped from the fire.

If there were voices, as Dhai Ma claimed, prophesying my life in a garbled roar, they hadn’t come yet. The orange lick of flames fell away; the air was suddenly cold. The ancient hall smelled of incense, and under it, an older smell: war-sweat and hatred. A gaunt, glittering man walked toward my brother and me as we stood hand in hand. He held out his arms—but for my brother alone. It was only my brother he meant to raise up to show to his people. Only my brother that he wanted. Dhri wouldn’t let go of me, however, nor I of him. We clung together so stubbornly that my father was forced to pick us both up together.

I didn’t forget that hesitation, even though in the years that followed King Drupad was careful to fulfill his fatherly duty and provide me with everything he believed a princess should have. Sometimes, when I pressed him, he even allowed me privileges he kept from his other daughters. In his own harsh and obsessive way, he was generous, maybe even indulgent. But I couldn’t forgive him that initial rejection. Perhaps that was why, as I grew from a girl into a young woman, I didn’t trust him completely.

I turned the resentment I couldn’t express toward my father onto his palace. I hated the thick gray slabs of the walls—more suited to a fortress than a king’s residence—that surrounded our quarters, their tops bristling with sentries. I hated the narrow windows, the mean, dimly lit corridors, the uneven floors that were always damp, the massive, severe furniture from generations ago that was sized more for giants than men. I hated most of all that the grounds had neither trees nor flowers. King Drupad believed the former to be a hazard to security, obscuring the vision of the sentries. The latter he saw no use for—and what my father did not find useful, he removed from his life.

Staring down from my rooms at the bare compound stretching below, I’d feel dejection settle on my shoulders like a shawl of iron. When I had my own palace, I promised myself, it would be totally different. I closed my eyes and imagined a riot of color and sound, birds singing in mango and custard apple orchards, butterflies flitting among jasmines, and in the midst of it—but I could not imagine yet the shape that my future home would take. Would it be elegant as crystal? Solidly precious, like a jewel–studded goblet? Delicate and intricate, like gold filigree? I only knew that it would mirror my deepest being. There I would finally be at home.

My years in my father’s house would have been unbearable had I not had my brother. I never forgot the feel of his hand clutching mine, his refusal to abandon me. Perhaps he and I would have been close even otherwise, segregated as we were in the palace wing our father had set aside for us—whether from caring or fear I was never sure. But that first loyalty made us inseparable. We shared our fears of the future with each other, shielded each other with fierce protectiveness from a world that regarded us as not quite normal, and comforted each other in our loneliness. We never spoke of what each one meant to the other—Dhri was uncomfortable with effusiveness. But sometimes I wrote him letters in my head, looping the words into extravagant metaphors. I’ll love you, Dhri, until the great Brahman draws the universe back into Himself as a spider does its web.

I didn’t know then how sorely that love would be tested, or how much it would cost both of us.



Perhaps the reason Krishna and I got along so well was that we were both severely dark–skinned. In a society that looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk–and–almond hues, this was considered most unfortunate, especially for a girl. I paid for it by spending hour upon excruciating hour being slathered in skin–whitening unguents and scrubbed with numerous exfoliants by my industrious nurse. But finally she’d given up in despair. I, too, might have despaired if it hadn’t been for Krishna.

It was clear that Krishna, whose complexion was even darker than mine, didn’t consider his color a drawback. I’d heard the stories about how he’d charmed his way into the hearts of the women of his hometown of Vrindavan—all 16,000 of them! And then there was the affair of Princess Rukmini, one of the great beauties of our time. She’d sent him a most indecorous love letter asking him to marry her (to which he’d promptly and chivalrously responded by carrying her off in his chariot). He had other wives, too—over a hundred, at last count. Could the nobility of Kampilya be wrong? Could darkness have its own magnetism?

When I was fourteen, I gathered up enough courage to ask Krishna if he thought that a princess afflicted with a skin so dark that people termed it blue was capable of changing history. He smiled. That was how he often answered my questions, with an enigmatic smile that forced me to do my own thinking. But this time he must have sensed my confused distress, for he added a few words.

“A problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself.”

I regarded this oblique advice with some suspicion. It sounded too easy to be true. But when the festival of Lord Shiva approached, I decided to give it a try.


Excerpted from The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Copyright © 2008 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

Through the tumultuous life of Panchaali, daughter of King Drupad and wife to five husbands who seek to reclaim their birthright, bestselling novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni gives voice to a bold and sensuous retelling of captivating stories from the Mahabharat. Woven into the fabric of traditional tales from the ancient Indian epic, Panchaali’s destiny is a thread as golden and as fragile as the lotus she discovers. As she endures a fierce civil war, domestic power struggles, and the perils of attraction to elusive men, Panchaali brings a feminine sensibility to her male-dominated world. From the story of her magical birth in fire to her final moments as she brings an end to the Third Age of Man, Panchaali bears witness to her fate with insightful observations and a powerful heart. With devotion to Panchaali’s tale, Divakaruni also presents a stirring account of the interplay of warriors, gods, and the inscrutable laws of destiny, offering wisdom for today’s war-torn world.

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 19 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2008

    A fantastic fiction

    The book so well written and a subject which will touch the hearts of each and every living Hindu person because it brings out every tenent from the epic Mahabharata. Tales which are told to every child in every corner of India from the time they are born. The tales of Krishna, the Pandavas and the Kauravas and the famous Kuruskshetra war are associated with big familes where grandmothers and grandfathers sat around with their children and grandchildren and told glorious tales from the Mahabharata. So not only that it is an epic, it has lot of warm childhood memories, the warmth of love,security,belonging, awe, the soothing voice of a grandmother,grandfather and mother. Tackling this subject without offending anybody's sensibilities because of the way it is knit into the everyday life of the Indian culture . The author Ms Divakaruni handled it so beautifully. Lord Krishna sets the tenets of Bhagvad Gita and every person spends a lifetime to acheive a little of what the Bhagvad Geeta teaches us , especially the Hindus. It was really great of the author to touch this subject and doing it with such senstivity and making it into a fantastic work of fiction . The very essence of the great epic is captured and put in the perception of a famous lady Panchaali who is said to be the reason for the Kurukshetra war and presented in such a beautiful and simple manner. People who are confused by the various names and events when told the actual stories got the actual events fixed in their minds while reading this fantastic piece of fiction. It was handled well. I totally loved the book

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Great Book!

    It was so relaxing to read this book.

    The main character is so strong and independent from most of the women in those days.

    It was slow at first, reading it, but as I got more into it, got more used to the ideas and the characters, I realized that I couldn't put it down.

    This book has really gotten me more interested in Hindu culture and the religion. I'm so glad I was able to read it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 22, 2009

    It was slow at first, but in all other aspects, it was excellent!

    I now have a new respect for myths and stories, the things I have so long exiled from life.

    This book opened me up to Indian culture and way of life, which I admire. I admire the heroism of the protagonist, and I soaked up the many morals the book expressed just as naturally as a sponge soaks up water. :p

    At first I didn't know what I was getting myself into.

    I absolutely LOVED the cover... yes, even after all these years of reading, I still judge books by their covers.

    The magic in the book was everywhere. I loved all the relationships, and I wished that only some would surface more than others, though to my disappointment, they didn't. I'll admit, I tried my best not to get confused by all the references to Hindu religion (I think I'm pairing it with the right one).

    But reading this, made me realize how much more reasonable, Hinduism is than most other popular religions I know.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2009


    This was a wonderful re-telling of an ancient story from a new perspective.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2010

    I didn't like it, but I didn't hate it.

    I found the storytelling to be very slow. Overall, it was a good story but I wouldn't read it again. I've read books much better than this one and it doesn't gain a spot on my list of books I'd recommend.

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  • Posted May 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great read!

    Divakaruni is one of my fav authors and she has done it again! If you have any familiarity, or even no familiarity, with the epic (and lenghty) history of the Maharbaratha, you will thoroughly enjoy this read -- Divakaruni gives every characters entirey new life, and you meet a side of them you mayhave guessed was there, but were never introduced to before. The voice of Draupadi (narrator of the story - which evens more originality to shi version) is dramatic, thoughtful, pointed, inquisitive, and headstrong -- all at the same time. A fantastic read for anyone interested in the epic history of India and the subcontinent.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2010

    This is my absolute favorite book!!

    I originally just got this book for its cover. It facinated me and I really wanted to see what the book was about because of it. It took me a few times to actually start the book because I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of her being born from fire. After I got past the first chapter it made me feel as if i was part of the story. Panchali's relationship with Kirishna just facinated me and I loved how he felt like a father to her. He was my favorite character. Dhri, her brother, was so close to Panchali and they knew everything about eachother.they could always tell what the other was thinking. I absolutly loved her husbands strength with her temper. She always had complete control over all five though, which i respected. She is one of the strongest people that I have read about in a long time. She struggles with her love for Karna, but is able to stay strong and not let her love for him reaveled.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Worst Book I Have Ever Read

    Initially I was very interested in this book, the cover looked interesting and when I read the back it sort of reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was slow to begin with but I continued to read it because I heard it would eventually pick up. This never happened. This book was a complete waste of my time. Not only is it horribly written and completely unoriginal (the basic story is taken from the Mahabharat), you never connect with any character in the book and towards the end you are really wishing this train wreck will end sooner than later. There are so many names and subplots in this book that literally towards the third chapter, each chapter being about six pages, you have forgotten half of the information that was given to you and all of the characters story lines. For instance, the main character has three names that are interchangeble throughout the book (Drupadi, Panchaali, and Krishnaa). Divakaruni has truly released an amazing piece of rubbish that cannot even be called literature but should be refered to as a strain of poorly worded sentences that deserves to be thrown in the garabage and forgotten about as soon as possible. DO NOT READ!!!! IT'S SOOO INCREDIBLY BAD

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2008


    I loved this novel, it had love, friendship, magic, and tragedy. You will not be able to set it down, it keeps you on your toes the whole time. I thought it was fabulous.

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    Posted September 30, 2009

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    Posted January 26, 2010

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