From the back cover: Rishi and Karishma are living a routine life in the US with nothing more exciting to deal with than middle school until their cat starts talking. He reveals that they need to find the Jiva Sutra—the ancient Book of Life—before it falls into evil hands. Could they really be the chosen ones entrusted centuries ago with the book, born again to restore it for the benefit of all beings? Will the lizard-born Hiramani, an enemy from that past life, seize it before them and use its powerful life force for his own nefarious ends?
Teaming up with a host of wild creatures and the world’s oldest trees, Rishi and Karishma set off on a dangerous quest that takes them from America to India and Tibet. From the ruins of an ancient university in Nalanda, to the forests of Gir, and the Temple of the Saffron Cats in Tibet, the brother and sister must battle the evil Hiramani in their bid to save the Jiva Sutra and restore balance to the earth.
Full disclosure: I knew I would love this book because I first read the opening chapters when Nandini Bajpai and I were in a critique group together, and I loved them then.
As a contemporary fantasy, this book is different from anything else I’ve read so far this year, and it was a welcome break from weighty issues. But that doesn’t mean Rishi and the Karmic Cat is fluff—far from it. As I already know from reading Red Turban, White Horse, Bajpai has a knack for tucking serious subjects and journeys discreetly within light-hearted, adventurous stories.
I know—what’s light-hearted about needing to save the Book of Life from an evil prince seeking to turn the book’s power toward destruction? It’s Bajpai’s writing. Her books are imbued with a smart, appropriately sprinkled humor that comes through in every character, but never feels authorial.
The relationship between Rishi and his sister feels spot-on: at two years apart in age, they mess with each other, but their disagreements are far from mean-spirited. Throughout the story, they support one another and work together to accomplish their mission.
What is mean-spirited (expectedly so) is Hiramani, the prince reborn into iguana form. He’s actually kind-of funny at times—in a crotchety, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn manner. Trapped as an iguana, his magic is selfish, destructive, and more powerful than that of the jiva masters—whose magic is based in compassion and humility, and feels primarily defensive.
Rishi is creative and quick-witted, though he often speaks and acts without thinking (like me, I’ll admit), and ends up appropriately rewarded for his impulsiveness. He’s uncertain about his own abilities, but his heart is open and he’s willing to put himself in danger to protect others from harm. It’s that willingness to run into the fire, combined with his ingenuity, that enable Rishi to find the treasured items needed to restore the Jiva Sutra, outwit Hiramani’s attempts to find them, and hold his own in their final confrontation.
Rishi and Karishma, as they work with their cat Kesar (a jiva master) and two more masters to find and restore the Jiva Sutra, are confronted with the reality of our ailing planet and the painful fact that there is no overnight fix. They learn that even the little things we do make a difference, though they sometimes seem like nowhere near enough. What’s worse is to do nothing, and to dismiss the impact of an individual.
Final note, for anyone wondering why a jiva master would be reborn as a cat: yes, you’ll find out.
For May 31: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman