(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
When the British Empire sets its sights on India in the 1850s, it expects a quick and easy conquest. After all, India is not even a country, but a collection of kingdoms on the subcontinent. But when the British arrive in the Kingdom of Jhansi, expecting its queen to forfeit her crown, they are met with a surprise. Instead of surrendering, Queen Lakshmi raises two armies—one male, one female—and rides into battle like Joan of Arc. Although her soldiers are little match against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi fights against an empire determined to take away the land she loves.
Told from the perspective of Sita, one of the guards in Lakshmi’s all-female army and the queen’s most trusted warrior, The Last Queen of India traces the astonishing tale of a fearless ruler making her way in a world dominated by men. In the tradition of her bestselling novel Nefertiti, which Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, called “a heroic story with a very human heart,” Michelle Moran once again brings a time and place rarely explored in historical fiction to rich, vibrant life.
[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]
I have to say that I’ve had mixed experiences with Michelle Moran’s books. The first book I read by her was Cleopatra’s Daughter and I absolutely loved it. The second book I read by her was Nefertiti and I both hated it and was supremely disappointed by it. As a result of the second book I never read any of her other works but the blurb on Rebel Queen and my previously good experience with Cleopatra’s Daughter convinced me to give her a second chance. In the end, I am so glad that I did.
Rebel Queen reveals to Westerners like me a society and culture that we rarely think of. I’m ashamed to admit that before I read this book I knew essentially nothing about Indian history other than the odd occasion when they came into contact with empires and cultures I did study like the Mongol and Alexandrian Empires. So imagine my surprise and my delight when I learned that not only was Rebel Queen mostly historically accurate, it taught me so much about Indian culture. I loved learning in a very organic way about the different gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion that are really just aspects of one god and I loved learning about how various cultures influenced India up until that point. The concept of purdah brought in by the Muslims (the practice of separating and sequestering women) was definitely interesting to see in Sita’s little village and when she finally travelled to become a bodyguard to Queen Lakshmi it was in stark contrast to the open, more equal expectations of men and women in the capital city. Of course I don’t know how accurate all of this is but Michelle Moran seems to have done her research and only changed a couple of the place names and the chronology just a tiny bit throughout the whole book so I think it’s safe to say that it’s at least mostly accurate.
Sita was a very interesting character. When her mother dies giving birth to her little sister, the only hope her family has of providing a dowry for one of them is for Sita to start training as a Durgavasi, the elite all female bodyguard to the rani (or queen in English). There are only ever ten Durgavasi at any one time so Sita has to become an expert in the bow and arrow, pistols, swords and daggers as well as learn both English and another one of the main languages in India in order to be a valuable member of the court. When she’s chosen as the newest Durgavasi at only 17 it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work but also the start of a new type of hard work. There’s of course the physical side of training but Sita also has to become versed in the little intricacies of the court as well as learn how to speak, act and dress like a member of the rani’s court. Not everyone in the Durga Dal is so kind to her, however, and one in particular seems out to get her constantly. As she learns to integrate, Sita certainly grows as a person and her main concern is always her little sister back home. But when the British start to annex Jhansi, Sita is forced to make heart-rending choices as she is forced to choose between her family and her rani, who has become a friend to her. I think we all know essentially how the story ends but it’s Sita’s journey that makes it worth reading.
For historical fiction, Rebel Queen is very fast-paced but by most standards it’s in a sort of happy middle. It’s fast-paced enough to stay interesting but at the same time there are times the plot slows down to allow you to get your bearings and learn more about the characters. Character development is never sacrificed in the name of the plot and I loved seeing not only how Sita grows into her role but also how the rani goes from being childless to being a mother to a figurehead/peacekeeper and finally the full on rebel queen that history knows her as. It’s an interesting journey and even if the plot had been slower paced it still would have kept my interest. Michelle Moran is a pretty good writer in general so it’s great to see the proof in this book that the disaster that was Nefertiti was a fluke.
If you like historical fiction I really can’t recommend Rebel Queen enough. Even if you’re like me and no absolutely nothing about Indian history, it’s very hard not to love this book. You’ll fall in love with the characters and cheer them on even though you can probably guess how things end and maybe you’ll learn a little bit about Indian culture and history like I did. So go on and buy this book! It releases today here in Canada and the US. (It releases in early April in Britain under the title The Last Queen of India.)
I give this book 5/5 stars.