on sale: now
copy from: publisher/MichelleMoran
review written: 4.4.15
originally published: March 3 2015
edition read: Touchstone (Simon and Schuster)
title: Rebel Queen
author: Michelle Moran
Rebel Queen opens up with an eighty-five year old woman being pressured by a young English journalist to recount the story of her past, and that of Queen Lakshmi of Jhansi, or the Rani of Jhansi. With scepticism, the woman begins her story, which starts with her as a young girl, Sita Bhosale of the village of Barwa Sagar. Confined in purdah, a practice in which a girl is not allowed to leave her house until she is married, Sita is educated by her father, a former soldier that once fought with the British (The East India Company) against Burma. Her unusual education, which includes Shakespeare and archery, allows her to save her family from poverty when she enlists to join the Rani of Jhansi's all-female personal guard, where she would be taken care of while earning a salary. However, when the British decide to take India, Queen Lakshmi refuses to back down without a fight. The fate of Sita, her family, and the Queen all rests with the politics of Jhansi and the ambitions of the British.
The release of Rebel Queen caught me by surprise. I'd not been keeping up with the book world with recent publications or upcoming releases. So when I was offered a copy to review, I almost cried. Not many historical fiction writers dare to touch India, and I can understand why. European history and Western culture are closely linked. Writing about the French Revolution or the American Civil War isn't that hard--but writing about a small region of the diverse and complex landscape of historical India is. Michelle Moran is fearless in her conquest of regions across the world--her books on Ancient Egypt were luxurious and Cleopatra's Daughter set in Rome and Egypt was deeply fascinating. If anyone could do it, it would be Michelle Moran. I love how Moran writes about famous historical figures from the viewpoint of a close friend or relative and not from the historical figure. It allows the freedom to explore a new character, while also tying closely to a famous person and the historical backdrop.
The novel takes place in a region of India called Jhansi. As I mentioned earlier, India is incredibly diverse and complex. Each individual state of India has its own language, customs, and way of life. When I heard about the book, I thought "Well, I'm Indian, so I'm going to have a lot of background info going in." I was wrong. While certain aspects were already known to me, like dresses and objects, and the italicised words indicated the phonetic pronunciation of a word from another language, everything else was new to me. My half-familiarity with some of the content made me laugh a bit. For instance, the description of churidars. I call it "kurta" or "salwar kameez" and occasionally "churidar." My parents use it all interchangeably. Here it is from page 43:
""Yes. And these churidars," he said, holding up a pair of green pants. I had never worn pants before. They were tight at the ankles and waist, but loose and airy in the legs for quick movement"
The paint are typically called "pyjamas" which I know may sound weird, but it was weird for me to read "pants" It's clear to me that Moran did her research well! I couldn't find many cultural inaccuracies, if any at all, which is absolutely wonderful for readers who may not know much about India.
I enjoyed the first half of the book, which explored Sita's early childhood and her welcoming into the Royal Palace. Each character was introduced deliberately, and I could almost visualise the story unfolding before my eyes. Sita's character was refreshing: honest, strong, caring, and intelligent, she represents an ideal and a role-model for many young readers. If Rebel Queen is lacking in anything, it's certainly not great characters. However, I feel as if towards the end, the story rushed and got lost amidst historical events and a rapid change in way of life. Whereas earlier in the book where the story jumps over weeks or months did not seem to affect the pace of the story, it affected the second half of the story. This could just be because things changed very quickly in the historical scheme, but for the most part, it's a well-paced story.
Painstaking attention to detail with ekphrasis describing the exact outfit a character wears for long paragraphs can get boring for any reader. However, Moran's restraint in detailing architecture or market scenes makes for just the right amount of description for the reader to picture a scene without the dreadfully long paragraphs. The writing was easy to read, with the right combination of dialogue scene-setting, and transition.
I feel that something was missing from the book. I finished it, with this slew of analytical compliments as I detailed above, but something wasn't quite right. I didn't get emotionally involved into the story, or many of the characters. If something bad happened to one of them, I wouldn't feel a sense of loss, rather a "oh well" If anything could be changed, it would be better characterization.
Overall, I think Rebel Queen is a fresh historical-fiction read that anyone would enjoy reading!