In the kingdom of Bharata, a tyrant reigns. His sister, the Princess Gauri, is prisoner in the neighboring land of Ujijain, her fate in the hands of Prince Vikram, who faces a captivity of his own, in the question of his right to rule. If A Crown of Wishes were a cunning novel of political intrigue, the setup would end there, but Roshani Chokshi opts instead to put these circling not-quite enemies at the heart of a fairy tale.
In answer, the fairy tale is every bit as fierce as our leading pair: by magical invitation, they travel to compete in a deadly Tournament of Wishes, a contest that, if they win, will grant them each a wish. Gauri plans to use hers to wrest her kingdom from her brother and free a close friend from his grasp, and Vikram seeks the chance at agency as Ujijain’s rightful king.
But wishes are tricky things, and so, too, is the magic of the realm where our leads seek their fortunes. To succeed, they will have to suffer their worst fears, unite with an unlikely ally, and confront a a terrible truth: that of their feelings for each other.
The particular prose style of a work like this isn’t usually the element of most note––that honor usually goes to the dynamics of the hesitant lovers or the worldbuilding around them––but while Chokshi’s work in both these areas is superb (more on that later), it’s her narration that makes A Crown of Wishes such a treasure. Gauri and Vikram don’t just live through a treacherous and beautiful fairy tale; the writing truly reads like it’s sampled from a storybook in turn, from the dialogue spoken by the mystical inhabitants of Chokshi’s beautifully-rendered otherworld to the lush descriptions of food, finery, and feeling we find there.
Chokshi’s word-smithery never fades elegantly into the scene at hand, but where this quality might make a work dense or cumbersome, it instead makes A Crown of Wishes something to be savored, a painting where the intricacy of the brushstrokes is as vital as the image itself.
What’s brilliant about this artistic choice, though, is its resonance in terms of what A Crown of Wishes means for the world it’s set in at scale. As a spinoff sharing a universe with Chokshi’s debut, The Star-Touched Queen, it takes a slightly different path in showing its mortal protagonists in concert with the supernatural: where Maya, the first book’s lead, feels like she truly belongs in this unearthly magical realm in The Star-Touched Queen, A Crown of Wishes is careful to show Gauri and Vikram as merely visitors, and as such, delineates them from their surroundings using the subtle tool of speech. Their dialogue is “higher” in phrasing than truly grounded, real-to-life speech (they are fantasy characters, after all), but even still, there are notable differences between their voices and the voices of the otherworld around them, in a delicate effort by Chokshi to use even the faintest of fiction’s tools to the utmost.
As we explore the magical world through the eyes of these outsiders, getting brief glimpses at its dangers and wonders, we slowly discover the fading state of magic in their ordinary one, and the novel becomes as much an elegy for the vanishing supernatural as it is an exploration of its riches. This premise is not an unfamiliar one in fantasy, nor is the idea that the mystical, once it is closed to humanity by the dawning of a new age, will be remembered in story a surprising answer, but Chokshi has this unwavering earnestness as a storyteller that makes the well-expected a revelation, here and in our love story alike.
There’s no question that Gauri and Vikram, with their uneasy alliance, lingering gazes, and witty banter, are meant to be, but that takes nothing from the joy of watching them hide their hearts from one another as various trials push them closer to revealing their desires. Chokshi, skilled in romance, knows precisely how to make the most of pining: forcing them to fake a marriage to enter the trials, dwelling on every instance of falsified intimacy, and using every instant of danger to draw their vulnerabilities into the light.
As a contrast to The Star-Touched Queen, they don’t feel like fated lovers so much as fellow contenders, bound together by their wants and a shared willingness to fight for them. To be fair, Maya and Amar (from The Star-Touched Queen) are a wonderful pair in their own right, but it’s the warring hesitancy and conviction that make A Crown of Wishes such a finely-wrought love story, and an even more impressive feat compared with Chokshi’s first.
I would be remiss, though, if I neglected to mention the supporting characters (both major and minor) who are a defining factor in the lingering spell Chokshi’s fairy tale casts. Aasha, one of the vishakanya, a group of women from the mortal world who feed on desire and are poisonous to the touch, is certainly a standout, wrestling as she does with the alienation of losing the mortal world and longing for its delight, but elsewhere, Chokshi gives us smaller but just as tantalizing glimpses of stories unfolding just out of view.
The ancient Serpent King and the river goddess Kapila for instance, appear for hardly a chapter, but Chokshi uses that time to give us the sense that there’s a rich drama hiding behind them, just like there’s one in Aasha, just like there’s one behind Nalini and Arjun, the friends Gauri had to leave behind in Bharata, and just like there was one behind Gauri in her brief appearances in The Star-Touched Queen.
Anyway, in terms of storytelling advice, it’s hard to go wrong in creating side characters with the maxim that they should all feel like they’re getting their own spinoff novel, and it certainly reads like that here, to impressive effect: A Crown of Wishes is a wealth of stories all its own, like a treasury of fairy tales hiding in plain sight.
The only downside to this, of course, is that I now yearn for Roshani Chokshi to write them all.