The sci-fi/fantasy thriller Privilege by Bharat Krishnan was a title I noticed during the 2021 Self Published Fantasy Blog Off writing competition. I’m so glad this novel finally rose to the top of my reading pile as it’s refreshingly different and thought-provoking.
The novel, set in 2020, is an alternative history satire. This world is identical to ours with one exception, since during the Gold Rush in the 1800s a mysterious drug called WP was discovered. WP grants you super powers, such as increased physical strength and heightened perception. Some people are even able to alter someone else’s memories and perception of reality. This powerful drug is only legally available to Caucasians, based around the argument its use is dangerous for people of other races. There’s political debate in the US about making it available to non-whites but the wheels of the legislature run slow. In the meantime, the world’s top 1% jealously guard their power and influence.
The central character, Indian American Rakshan, isn’t prepared to wait. Together with his friends, Rakshan plans a heist, with his former boss as the mark. They intend to steal his WP. Rakshan is naive at times and, as the story develops, he and his friends quickly find themselves out of their depth.
Alongside the heist, there are two main sub-plots. There’s Rakshan’s relationship with Sadiya, his girlfriend for the past three years, and the story of the teenager Jerome, who is manipulated by the underworld criminal known as Spartacus. As the story develops Krishnan also introduces a romance between two of the female characters, which I thought was handled well and felt believable, especially the uncertainty the pair have about their feelings and how their wider family might react.
One of the most notable features of Privilege is how Krishnan manages to successfully blend together the worries and concerns of ordinary life within an overarching story about politics and crime. This is an ambitious book which, despite its short length, explores lots of important themes and issues. Privilege tackles cultural identity, asking what does it mean to be a second or third generation Indian in the US? There’s biting criticism of American politics, where there’s always a battle against prejudice and those who want to maintain the status quo. Krishnan shines a light on the uncomfortable truths around racism, including unaccountable Police violence against black people. There’s also commentary on how the legal system inherently favours white people. I particularly loved the line “The courtroom was packed; America loved the illusion of justice.”
I think the length of Privilege occasionally worked against it, as it sometimes felt like there weren’t quite enough pages to do justice to all of its amazing ideas. The heist aspect of the plot lacked a little bit of tension for me as well. I think that could have been developed more to increase that sense of high stakes and maybe make it more complex than a simple break in.
Overall, though, I enjoyed this novel, which was a quick, fun read at under 200 pages, and leaves things nicely set up for the sequel. This political thriller is one that fans of Ocean’s 11 and those who appreciate positive LGBTQ+ representation will enjoy.