Title: Rea and the Blood of the Nectar
Author: Payal Doshi
Stars: ★★★ (3 stars)
Coming June 15th from Mango and Marigold Press, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar is Payal Doshi’s debut, and she comes in swinging. For anyone who remembers Sailor Moon and the wonderful trend of the magical girl, this will bring back memories as Rea makes friends and learns secrets about herself and the world around her.
Rea has a clear, strong voice. Within a few lines, Doshi has told you exactly who the main character is and the frustrations she faces. Ones that, frankly, a lot of girls and young women in families face. Whether people want to think of themselves as traditional or conservative or not, many families still treat their sons and daughters differently.
However, while I adored Rea and understood where she came from (especially with the way her brother and mother act throughout the book), I loved Leela. She’s the sort of friend you want at your side in an adventure, and though Rea makes others along the way, Leela had her back when it was just a cricket game all the way through Rohan’s disappearance.
There are moments when Doshi ventured into what I mostly associate as ‘Greek Tragedy’ pitfalls. Clear communication could’ve solved a number of problems, and keeping secrets from those most vulnerable rarely ends well. This lost it a star for me. I don’t mind being able to see where the character screwed up, especially with a twelve-year-old MC, but Rea’s mother and grandmother had me table-flipping.
It’s a bit of a spoiler, so if you don’t know these and don’t want a spoiler, don’t look it up, but whenever I thought of Rea’s Amma, I kept thinking of The Bonny Swans by Loreena McKennitt and a wonderful short story by Patricia C. Wrede. When you hear the song, there is one villain and one tragic hero/victim. In the other, everything becomes gray and muddled, but with a sad certainty that everyone screwed up. Which might’ve worked if anyone acknowledged that. No one did, and I actually ended up reaching out to the author, Doshi herself, to see what she had to say.
While Doshi agreed that Rea’s Amma and the Queen were both morally gray, her defense of the grandmother reinforced that the audience was either supposed to assume that the decisions made were done with the best intentions (rarely a good sign) or that the Queen was once again lying. From what we see, I didn’t find the latter believable. Yes, we recognize the grandmother is prone to meaning well, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t replicate the same mistakes as her daughter. We clearly get the message that this is a family where it is thought better to not talk of things (contrary to what would’ve been helpful in avoiding these pitfalls), so we end up falling into the same loop of assumptions as readers by being left to assume the intentions of those who have proven themselves in action to be more than willing to do what they think is best without explanation or consideration to those most harmed by the fallout. If you watch The Crown, this all might feel familiar, so maybe that’s a royals thing.
My biggest problem comes in the form of the source of the conflict. I won’t spoil too much, but Doshi crafts a sympathetic villain and darkens other characters as the phrase ‘the law is the law’ seems especially empty these days. Whether this was masterfully intentional or projected because of my own background, I can’t tell. In the current social climate, power transitions relying heavily on tradition fail to do what they used to in fantasy like this.
Honestly, if it weren’t for Xeranther, I think I would’ve been rooting for the Queen by the end. Xeranther, like Leela, is a breath of fresh air. He is fantastic, and through him, we’re able to see the damage which truly makes the Queen a terrifying villain rather than just a twisted and tormented soul. However, he’s so removed from the internal issues of the palace that we can’t rely on him for much confirmation one way or the other on how the Queen took power.
I think one of the biggest disservices Doshi does to her own narrative is construct a great deal of untrustworthy individuals and assuming their being the titular “good guys” will lend credit to their claims. So many people are willing to sacrifice Rea as fodder to their own purposes, which means the only characters who prove through actions that they are trustworthy don’t have the knowledge necessary to give any credence one way or the other as to the exact intentions which the Queen makes.
The Queen has that same pizzazz as Glenn Close’s Cruella. She has some of the best and most poignant lines toward Rea as well. Toward the end, a few struck me as hard as what Cruella (1996 film) said about women losing themselves to marriage. Ironically, when it comes to Astranthian inheritance laws, I was shocked nobody seemed to realize that people can get pregnant and have kids out of wedlock. Easy way to guarantee the crown. If other laws make that taboo – too bad, you’re the Queen. Again, some really easy solves to a lot of self-made problems here.
Anyway, this all comes to fruit in the sharing of an ugly truth. One that the supposed heroes don’t actually address by the end of the story. This is a big disappointment, and it was character growth in a really uncomfortable direction for me. Again, I did reach out to Doshi to ask, and there will be more exploration of Rea’s relationship with Rohan in the sequel. Doshi mentioned the ending is more about Rea’s character growth than solidifying a child’s acceptance of parental favoritism, so I’m willing to hold out judgement on that end.
Outside of the story itself, my biggest critique would be the formatting. Some missing punctuation happened here and there, and some contradictory name spelling happened, but I don’t like to fault an author for editing when it doesn’t happen more than a handful of times (especially on names I’m not familiar with or aware of the diminutives of).
There are sections where thoughts and internal conversations are delineated in different ways. My preference for italics versus quotations marks (single vs. double) had me slightly discombobulated at the first person which invaded this close third person narrative, but – again – that is a preference and not a rule, so I did not take any stars for it either.