by Naveen Sridhar
book review by Mihir Shah
“Fate and faith are like friends who fail. Yet Enheduanna remained faithful to her faith, her only friend.”
Set on the banks of the Euphrates in 2286 BCE, Sridhar’s narrative is driven by compelling worldbuilding and character development. While the novel revolves around Enheduanna, the high priestess of the Temple of Ur, each character has a well-developed backstory that is instrumental to bringing the intricate system of government, politics, and power (and often the abuses of each) to life. Through the narrative, audiences will gain exposure to age-old questions such as the constant clash between church and state.
A seemingly insignificant exchange involving a foreigner, Beshi, and Ninlil, niece of Mashda the potter, has ripple effects that kickstart the plot from the opening scene. Simultaneously, the author uses this scene to introduce numerous integral characters, chiefly High Priestess Enheduanna, for whom the gift of the pitcher has been delivered. While the trajectory of every character is intriguing, the high priestess is multidimensional in nature and talent. Daughter of the emperor, Sargon the Great, Enheduanna—better known as Hedu—demonstrates an incredible commitment to her responsibility of spiritual guidance that commences with a morning terrace prayer to Inanna, the goddess that represents love, fertility, and war. As Hedu continues to see the atrocities being exacted upon the citizens of Ur by those in power, she begins navigating her internal struggle between limiting herself to just a spiritual guide (a liaison of sorts between the gods and her people) and fully channeling her inner Inanna and becoming a warrior priestess.
Hedu’s reluctance presents her as even more human, a strongly relatable and likable character whose gracefulness with the creation of hymns, poetry, and dance portends to what her ferocity may look like. Her call to action is aided by Atrahasis, leader of the Council of Elders, whose impact on Hedu is akin to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Obi-Wan in Star Wars. True to Campbellian storytelling, Sridhar’s incorporation of characters like Damkina, Hedu’s right-hand woman, and Atrahasis propel Hedu toward her call to action that begins with her commitment to protecting Mashda and Ninlil—and their pottery shop—from the likes of Governor Obares, dominating figures who seek to exercise their power on the most vulnerable.
Aside from strong character development, Sridhar’s work is imbued with mythological references, with Greek and Hindu myths being most prevalent. Specifically, the backstory of Sargon’s mother is intriguing in its parallels with the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, and the story of Queen Kunit of Hastinapura and her eldest son out of wedlock, Karna. With many mythological references and parallels, the author demonstrates his strong knowledge of history spanning multiple cultures, civilizations, and time periods.
Many themes flow concurrently throughout Sridhar’s work. Chiefly, the idea of power versus duty is a recurring theme best depicted by the greed of King Lugalanne and the lust of Governor Obares, neither of whom fully respect the temple’s authority. In fact, Lugalanne is determined to teach priests and priestesses like Hedu a lesson by completely stripping them of any authority they might have in the name of security and protection. Conversely, characters like Hedu, Beshi, and city commander Sisuthros are governed entirely by a sense of duty to their people and city, be that through the pen or the sword.
More importantly, Sridhar uses his characters to ignite stimulating conversations on the topic of God, faith, prayer, etc. For one, a discussion between Hedu and Ninlil on the necessity of temples delves into the role of God, ultimately presenting an understanding that one does not need a temple or deity to pray. Nonetheless, deities and temples represent man’s limitations and provide an ability for one to hone in and focus thoughts and energies on a singular entity. Such profound conversations exist between numerous characters and are only heightened as the principal players journey toward an inevitable collision course. Above all else, impeccable character development, strong worldbuilding, a well-flowing storyline, and an ability to make the reader feel present in character dialogues makes for an educational and entertaining read.
Sridhar’s Candlelight in a Storm was 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award da Vinci Eye Finalist.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review