SAYANTANI DASGUPTA’S The Serpent’s Secret is the first volume in a new YA series, Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond. Like most kids, Kiranmala — a.k.a. Kiran — is sometimes mortified by her parents’ odd, albeit well-intentioned behavior. She does her best to ignore their overprotective tendencies, their embarrassing terms of endearment, and of course the snake ditch they have dug in the front yard to protect her from the serpents prowling the Jersey turnpike.
But there is a method to their apparent madness. Kiran’s parents, hard workers who run a Quickie Mart on Route 46, embody the classic immigrant narrative of sacrifice and perseverance. They are not overly concerned with the acquisition of personal wealth or with conforming to someone else’s standard of “normal.” As long as they have enough to provide for their family, they are happy. They adore their only daughter — their princess — and encourage her to grow in the warmth of their affection.
They also do what most parents do when they want to teach their children without preaching to them: they tell her stories. They dress Kiran in silk saris every Halloween and tell her that she is a princess, a daughter of the underworld serpent king, found floating down the river of dreams in a clay pot when she was a baby. Of course, Kiran rolls her eyes at them. What she doesn’t know is that her parents aren’t just throwing around a vague term of endearment — because a princess is exactly what she is.
When Kiran returns home from school on her 12th birthday to find an empty house and a cryptic message, it becomes clear that Ma and Baba were not just filling her head with nonsense. Their constant warnings and colorful stories were not the antics of rambling parents who like to hear themselves talk. Rather, they were preparing her for the truth of her birth and the difficult journey ahead. Reality arrives in the form of two princes, Lal and Neel, who are sent to keep her safe from the rhyming, sliming rakkhosh (demons). With their help, Kiranmala must learn who she truly is if she wants to rescue her parents before it’s too late.
This story of self-discovery, adventure, and friendship encourages young readers to embrace heroes and monsters from ancient fairy tales, but it does so with a modern flair for language and a nod to other works of literature that also blend real and imagined worlds. DasGupta’s beautifully retold Indian myths are woven together with moments that recall elements of classic literature. While her story is unique, its roots are firmly planted in folklore, and it is told with the quirky style many of us have come to appreciate from other classic works of YA fiction.
The constable who writes down a shopkeeper’s accusations in a tiny notebook could have come out of Milo’s quest for the princesses Rhyme and Reason in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961). The bird Tuntuni, with his grumpy antics and his concern that they might “all get eaten by sea monsters […] [or] catch [their] deaths of pneumonia,” is reminiscent of the melancholy Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum from C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair (1953). Kiran’s journey through space, complete with moving mountains and black holes, felt like a wink to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962). The reader feels a sense of connection to other stories they have loved, while also appreciating the unique qualities of characters they have never encountered before.
The greatest triumph of the book, however, is its warm appreciation for family in all its forms. This young princess is a child of two worlds, and as such she must learn to accept all of herself, not just the parts she’s proud of. Kiranmala is encouraged to appreciate the light and the darkness, without condemning either, which is a very heavy statement for a middle-grade novel to make and a very difficult lesson to learn. Even Kiran’s guilt for being embarrassed by her parents’ traditions and eccentric behavior is one of those familiar moments that children (especially the children of immigrants) have to learn to accept because it’s impossible to hide those feelings.
Kiran’s biological mother puts it nicely:
You are the daughter of the moon. But you are also the daughter of those good people who raised you. And yes, you are the daughter of the dark Serpent King too […] Everything is connected to everything, Kiranmala.
Kiran was raised by a modest couple who love her dearly but must also respect the truth of her royal parentage, the union of moon maiden and Serpent King. It is in searching for Ma and Baba that she discovers the value of family and the strength associated with opening her mind to new ideas about herself and her past. As Kiran explains: “It was only when I admitted to myself all of who I was that I was able to find my deepest power.”
DasGupta has been compared to YA writers like Rick Riordan and Soman Chainani, but her work stands on its own. The Serpent’s Secret is filled with real feeling and a great sense of fun. The reader might wish for greater suspense and danger when it comes to the rakkhosh, and Kiran is reunited with her companion Neel rather too quickly. But this book is the first in a series, and I’m sure there is much more in store for our young heroine in her future adventures.
I would also like to take a moment to salute DasGupta for explaining why the flying horses could not carry Kiran and Neel to their final destination — because of a magical “No-Fly Zone.” This is pure genius. Tolkien should have thought of something like that to explain why his giant eagles couldn’t carry Bilbo, Gandalf, and the merry band of dwarves all the way to the Lonely Mountain.
The Serpent’s Secret is a book that brilliantly describes the bridge between real and fantastic worlds. As Kiran’s Baba says: “We humans may not be powerful or magical […] But the stories we pass on to our children can be.” The real power behind Kiranmala’s story, for me, is one of immigrant parents whose devotion drives their daughter to find them when they are lost and, in doing so, find herself.