A friend of mine suggested I read this book since I already barreled through a lot of Rick Riordan’s books. But what’s different is that this is a “Rick Riordan Presents” book. Now, from my understand, this is a publishing company that Riordan is involved in with his editor Stephanie Lurie. Reading the description on his site, it’s a rather noble goal of promoting authors writing similar stories to his own but are from the cultures where those mythologies and, in this case, religions come from. Aru Shah and The End of Time by Roshani Chokshi is one I find rather interesting as it is based on the stories of the Hindu religion. Personally, I always feared to tread on using references from still practiced religions, however it feels like Chokshi does a good job respecting the religion while telling an engaging, if very familiar, story.
Aru Shah and The End of Time focuses primarily on Aru, Mini and Subala, but mostly on Aru and Mini. The interactions between the three is nothing new for middle grade fiction but it’s lighthearted and occasionally witty humor is fun to read. The problem, however, is that it’s not quite evident until roughly a quarter to a third through the book. In other words, for the first part of the book, Aru is kind of annoying and unlikeable. There aren’t quite any redeeming qualities to her until the aforementioned parts of the books where she really becomes a likeable character.
But while I may criticize the introduction of Aru, Mini and Boo, it has to be said that they start to come into their own and really develop into endearing and well thought out characters. I particularly found Aru’s tendency to lie as an interesting character trait that grows in a way that isn’t the generic “always tell the truth” lesson that’s often lectured to children in stories. Middle grade fiction seems to be more of an introduction to more nuanced themes now which is great to see.
The story rockets in it’s pacing and never hits the breaks until the end. Immediately the reader is thrown into the inciting incident and everything about Aru, the world, and the story itself, is slowly pieced together as the story progresses. It’s a bit jarring at first, trying to understand what’s happening and where they are to then suddenly have Aru and Mina flung into a new location and mini-adventure within the grand adventure. There will be inevitable comparisons to the Percy Jackson story structure but it’s not quite a fair judgement. It’s very much a Hero’s Journey (or Heroine, as Aru and Mina would say) and follows the similar main quest with numerous detours found in most stories told. That being said, the side moments in the story feel a bit rushed as though to give the girls an item and then hurry them along to the next story beat. What’s unfortunate is that there’s so much filler that could be cut to allow what is present to be expanded on more. It’s not terrible or too damaging to the overall plot, but it is a bit disappointing as an introduction to a new series.
Now, unlike the mythos inspired books Riordan has written, I read Aru Shah and The End of Time with no real knowledge of Hinduism. In a sense, I entered blind and ready to read it as an introduction to the religion’s stories. It’s a very difficult task to introduce the mythos of another religion to an audience not necessarily familiar with it while also telling the author’s own story. I would argue that Riordan’s books have had an easier time as Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology has been interwoven in western storytelling for centuries. Chokshi’s task is far more difficult and, for the most part, she succeeds in giving what feels like a very light introduction into the story figures of Hinduism. Unfortunately, I am not the right person to make that judgement as I am unfamiliar with Hinduism and it’s stories.
What I can judge, however, is the worldbuilding within the story. While I can’t quite comment on the references made to Hinduism, the constant references to modern day pop culture come off as dated and “soon-to-be-dated”. For instance, a reference is made directly to The Matrix which I imagine the target audience probably has not watched. While not the most harmful, it’s hard to imagine the target audience of middle grade fiction not quite knowing what the references are in a few more years as things slowly disappear into pop culture obscurity.
But references aside, the locations and descriptions given feel very barebones where there are several moments where it’s not quite clear where they are or, in some cases, what they’re even talking to. There’s what feels like an over reliance on the reader’s imagination as to know where the girls are. When they’re in modern day settings it’s not too difficult to imagine what’s around them, but when it gets to the more fantastical and imaginative locations, it feels like more could be done to describe it. There’s times where the five senses could be used to really flesh out the new and interesting locations Aru and Mini find themselves in.
The writing is fast, fluid and often easy to follow without issue. Chokshi does a good job in seamlessly interweaving Hindu references in a way that helps to not break the pace of the story which is very intentional though not necessarily for the right reason. The pace of the story is so fast that it feels like a minor part of the quest and location is breezed through immediately and then pushed into the next thing on the to-do list. A lot of this is due to the fact that most of the writing is focused on action-oriented sentences rather than descriptions to move the plot along. Though it’s not the worst in terms of a stylistic choice for middle grade fiction as attention spans these days are so short, bogging readers down in long and lengthy descriptions can lose a reader’s attention. The word choice here definitely helps convey the sense of urgency and the speed of the story.
What Writers can learn from this book.
One thing that Roshani Chokshi can be commended on is her ability to include references to Hinduism in a way that doesn’t feel too confusing to a reader. Often times, to those who are unfamiliar to the references made, it can be quite jarring when suddenly something new to the reader is tossed into the story and the reader is left confused. What really helps is the context clues that are included in the writing really help to illustrate what it is and allows the reader to make connections to something they may already be familiar with. There’s also a very detailed glossary at the back of the book if the reader is still confused on the term. Normally I detest glossaries as it feels like I have to constantly flip back and forth to get an idea of what it is that’s happening. But Chokshi does a good job making it easier to understand so that it doesn’t slow down the lightning quick pace of the story.