Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
Aru Shah and the End of Time (2018), by Roshani Chokshi, is part of a new imprint by Disney-Hyperion aimed at middle grade readers and overseen by Rick Riordan in cohort with a senior editor to “elevate the diversity of mythologies around the world” and publish “entertaining, mythology-based diverse fiction by debut, emerging, and under-represented authors.” It should come as no surprise then that Chokshi’s novel, which has Hindu mythology at its core, bears more than a passing resemblance to Riordan’s own PERCY JACKSON series in form, content, and character. If its pedigree is obvious, though, Chokshi still manages to put her own spin on a familiar structure, leading to a mostly successful beginning to what she’s calling THE PANDAVA QUARTET.
The story begins when middle schooler Aru Shah, caught by some classmates in one of her many lies, gives in to their blackmail dare to light the allegedly cursed Lamp of Bharata, housed in the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, which has doubled as Aru’s home for as long as she can remember. This being fantasy, that “alleged” curse turns out of course to be real, and Aru unintentionally releases the Sleeper, an ancient demon who seeks to wake Shiva the God of Destruction, who will then end all of Time. The task thus falls to Aru, one of the reincarnated five legendary Pandava brothers (from the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu epic), to save the universe by collecting the divine weapons and stopping the Sleeper, with some help from a pigeon named Boo and her soul-sister Mini, another reincarnated Pandava.
Rick Riordan has made a living off translating more familiar mythologies (Greek, Norse, Egyptian) into modern story, and it’s nice to see the much-less well-known Indian myths get their turn in the sun. Chokshi does an excellent job bringing them to life in Aru Shah and the End of Time; the underlying images and tales are fascinating, and I wouldn’t have minded being steeped in them even more, though I assume with three books left in the series I’ll get my wish. Amongst my favorites are a sentient palace, a seven-headed horse, and the six seasons (yes, six — we’re not in Kansas anymore).
Admittedly, when we wander back from the Hindu mythology to the modern world, I was a little less captivated. Booger and poop jokes (and there are more than a few of each in here) don’t do much for me and while I’d lay this at the feet of my being far (far, far, far) removed from the target age, they didn’t do much for me in middle school either.
I’m guessing I’m an outlier there, though, and that Chokshi’s audience, like Riordan’s, will ride along happily. Similarly, Aru glides along a bit too blithely given such weighty concerns (including her mother being literally frozen stiff), especially early on, but once again I’m pretty sure most young readers will be happy with her light banter and allusions to selfies, Instagram, and a host of other pop references in the face of potential danger and grief (the one truly problematic misstep I thought here was a reference to clearing one’s internet history — I’m not sure we need a porn reference in a middle grade book).
On the other hand, Chokshi does a painfully wonderful job conveying Aru’s sense of separation from her schoolmates, who differ from her in class, ethnicity, and religion. One, for instance, looking at some statues in the museum, asks scornfully, “Why do your gods have so many hands?” When another “pointed at the full-bodied curves of the goddesses and rolled her eyes,” Aru felt “heat crawl through [her] stomach … She wanted all the statues to shatter on the spot. She wished they weren’t so naked. So different.” Every middle schooler will empathize, even if his or her reason is different.
Early on, I had questions about the book. It felt a little too light, too rife with pop references, and was too closely adhering to Riordan’s Percy Jackson formula for my liking. But the more I read on, the more I enjoyed myself. The story immersed itself deeper and deeper in the Hindu mythos, and Chokshi’s writing seemed to rise correspondingly, as did the emotional heft. I began to mark more lines thanks to the style or the thoughtfulness, and that aforementioned palace offered up a heck of an emotional punch. Now and then the pop references still jarred, but it ended strongly, and given that I’m looking forward to book two, I’d certainly recommend Aru Shah and the End of Time for middle grade and young high schoolers.