Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Rebel Queen, Michelle Moran’s latest release. Perfect timing for the month that our Pink book is set in India, no?
In the small Indian village of Barwa Sagar in 1840, a young girl named Sita’s world collapses around her when her mother dies giving birth to a second daughter. To earn money for her family, and to prevent her grandmother from selling her sister to the temple for life as a prostitute, Sita begins a rigorous course of training to become a member of the Durga Dal – an elite group of women who function as the bodyguards, entertainers, and personal confidants for the Maharani of Jhansi. Sita learns to fight, to play chess, to discuss English poems and plays, and to ride a horse, but nothing could prepare her for her life in the palace of Jhansi. In the royal court, Sita discovers that there are two sets of rules at play: a set of traditions and expectations that she will understand with time and practice, and the unspoken rules of behavior that are only known to those who have spent a lifetime at court. On her first day at the palace, Sita learns that trust is an invaluable commodity, but it’s a lesson she will find herself forced to learn over and over throughout her seven years in the Durga Dal. Between the threat from the encroaching British and an even more insidious threat from within the palace itself, Sita begins to lose sight of her purpose in coming to Jhansi, and when open war breaks out between the British army and the local sepoys, she finds herself questioning where she owes her highest loyalty.
I have had a fascination with books set in India in this time period ever since I read M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions a few years ago. I’ve tried to find other books that would have that perfect blend of rich historical detail, beautifully rendered setting, exciting plot and fascinating characters, but for the longest time, I thought Kaye had managed to catch lightening in a jar. I’ve read a few other books that have come close, but never a story that could match Kaye for making me feel so wrapped up in the story. Rebel Queen has succeeded where the others failed. Moran’s story is immersive and compelling (although Rebel Queen clocks in under 300 pages, compared with over 1,000 for The Far Pavilions).
Some books about Indian history have an annoying habit of trying to place you in the setting by just throwing random Hindi or Sanskrit words at you in italics throughout the story. I find that, rather than making me feel at home in the setting, that tactic jerks me out of the story abruptly, like a big billboard screaming, “LOOK, A FOREIGN WORD! BECAUSE WE’RE IN INDIA, REMEMBER?” Moran’s setting details are so subtle that sometimes you forget she is building another time and place for you. Without bashing you over the head with descriptors, Moran makes you feel the summer heat, smell the rain, and hear the chaotic hum of a busy marketplace around you.
I love stories about palace intrigue, and Rebel Queen has that in abundance. The Durga Dal are, in theory, all fiercely devoted to the Maharani, but within their ranks, some are more interested in self-preservation and advancement than serving their queen. Neighboring kingdoms jockey for additional territory, and spies are constantly infiltrating the court of Jhansi. The all-female Durga Dal are the counterparts to the Maharaja’s male bodyguards, and given the amount of time these groups spend in close quarters, romantic sparks fly. Meanwhile, the British are slowly taking over Indian kingdoms under the guise of stewardship. Sita explains their presence with the parable about the camel’s nose, and how “on a cold winter’s night, the camel begged its master to allow it to place its nose inside the master’s tent… the camel, who promised at first it would be just its nose, then its legs, then its back, until finally it was the camel living inside the tent while the master shivered in the cold outside.” With so many sources of drama and tension, I was never bored – the pacing is great.
Sita was a wonderful narrator. You want her to succeed so badly after all the hardships she’s endured growing up, and you feel fiercely protective of her when people in the Jhansi court try to take advantage of her inexperience. And in the end, when you watch her struggle with conflicting loyalties, you heart will break right along with hers when she realizes that it’s not possible for her to save everyone and everything that she loves.
All in all, I was really impressed. I will definitely look into some of Moran’s previous books – I keep picking up Madame Tussaud and putting in down again in my trips to Barnes and Noble. Have you read any of her books? What would you recommend?