The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni || Book Review

The Palace of Illusions did something that my childhood couldn’t.

It made me interested in Mahabharata. Although I know the epic, it never interested me because I had never consumed it in form of storytelling.

I did study it in school but we read it in Hindi as part of the syllabus. That killed my interest to know more about the epic. And my family has a soft spot for Ramayana so that’s the story that I actually spent more time listening to and liking.

But now, I am VERY interested in reading more of Mahabharata. Let me explain why.

the palace of illusions book cover

A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view 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 Pandava 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.

Content warnings: detailed descriptions of violence, rape, and war.

The Mahabharata has always been a story about men. The five Pandava brothers are known to every Indian like we know the names of our family members. The Palace of Illusions made it a whole new story by narrating from Panchaali’s point of view.

For the first time, I got to know Panchaali as her own self. She has always been the wife of the Pandavas who caused the end of the third age of mankind. Instead of reading about how the Pandava brothers grew up and were betrayed by their cousins, we read about Panchaali’s upbringing and truly get to know her.

As the book is written in a biographical style, we see Panchaali right from when she was born out of flames with her twin brother and end with her death.

While the most important events of the Mahabharata are shown, a lot of the book focuses on quiet moments too. The author takes us completely into Panchaali’s former years, the peaceful years of her marriage in her own home, and the time after the battle of Kurukshetra.

Can our actions change our destiny? Or are they like sand piled against the breakage in a dam, merely delaying the inevitable?

It was really nice to get to know all the Pandavas individually—with their individual personalities, likes and dislikes—through Panchaali.

In my mind, they were always clubbed together with Arjun being the most popular brother because of the legends. This book made me look at the other brothers as well.

I have a newfound appreciation for Yudhisthir. Yes, he had his huge flaws which led to devastating consequences. But he had a quiet strength and was resilient against all hardships.

Staying true to your morals is very hard during turbulent times and, despite hate from Panchaali, he stuck with what he believed. That is something to be appreciated.

They were a unit together, five fingers that complemented each other to make up a powerful hand—a hand that would protect me if the need arose. A hand that had gifted me this beautiful palace.

It is hard to squeeze the entire Mahabharata into the story of one person. The epic is about several notable figures, each with their own legends that overlap in this timeline, finally concluding in the battle of Kurukshetra.

It simply cannot be written in 300 to 400 pages. Because of that, this book did have its holes. There were multiple parts where the author breezed through or mentioned in one line legends and otherwise important events because they weren’t directly affecting Panchaali.

Since I knew the epic, it was not off-putting. But if this book is an introduction to the Mahabharata for you, it might not be a seamless experience. Either you would become very curious about the mentions and would research more, or it would dampen the entire book for you.

What is the most wondrous thing on earth? Each day countless humans enter the Temple of Death, yet the ones left behind continue to live as though they were immortal.

I also felt like the pacing of the book could have been better. Sometimes we read an entire chapter with Panchaali’s monologues about her slow days. Other times, a paragraph describes multiple years.

If we had the same pacing throughout each chapter—like one chapter follows slow pacing and another has a fast pacing—it would have been more bearable. But multiple times the pacing randomly switched in the middle of chapters and that threw me off.

Were the stories we told each other true? Who knows? At the best of times, a story is a slippery thing.

Perhaps that was why it changed with each telling. Or is that the nature of all stories, the reason for their power?

Overall, I loved the book.

This is my first book by Divakaruni but I do have The Forest of Enchantments and I’m so excited to pick it up soon. Especially as it is based on Ramayana.

If you are not familiar with Mahabharata, this book is like Circe by Madeline Miller. Circe is also a biographical story of a mythical being, and her story overlaps those of other legends. The writing style is also similar.

If you liked Circe, you will definitely like The Palace of Illusions too.