I like to discover previously unknown books. I have often neglected well-known highly praised authors in favor of obscure indie writers who haven't received recognition. This is probably why I hadn't read any historical fiction by Michelle Moran. I did fully intend to read her French revolution novel, Madame Tussaud. The French Revolution fascinates me. Yet every time I picked up Moran's book on the subject, it seemed like a tome which I'd never have the time to finish.
Rebel Queen, her novel of 19th century India, really isn't that much shorter. At a hundred pages less, it would take seven hours of my reading time as opposed to the nine hours that I would need to dedicate to Madame Tussaud. The truth is that I was much more motivated to read Rebel Queen. I dearly love queens who rebel--particularly Boudica and Zenobia who both rebelled against the Roman Empire. I had actually never heard of the Rani of Jhansi and was eager to discover her once I had the time to do so.
The interesting surprise was that this book was primarily the story of one of the Rani's female guards. Sita was from a small village in the kingdom of Jhansi. It was highly unusual that a village girl would be selected for such an elite corps of women. They were expected to be companions of the Rani as well as bodyguards. In order to qualify, Sita needed to be able to read to the Rani as well as being able to fight using a variety of weapons. Few village girls would have the opportunity to obtain all these skills, but Sita's father was an unusual man. He made sure his daughter was both well-educated and a superlative warrior. I enjoyed reading about Sita's training for her future position.
Sita never expected that her Rani would need to rebel against the British. Neither did the Rani. Jhansi was still an independent kingdom, and the relationship of the Rani of Jhansi with British officials was fairly cordial for a good part of this novel. The change in the status of Jhansi was inevitable due to a new British policy of expansion. Yet based on Rebel Queen, I believe that the reason why Jhansi was among the first to fall victim to this policy was British prejudice against the Rani's husband, the Raja, who was the official ruler of Jhansi. Moran depicted him as a transgender individual whose main preoccupation was playing female roles in theatrical productions. In the publisher's reading group guide Q&A with Michelle Moran, she mentions the contemporary accounts that validate her portrayal of the Raja.
I did feel that Moran's research regarding religious beliefs in India was not as thorough. My own studies on the subject have shown me that India was and still is extremely diverse religiously. Adopting a crypto-monotheist approach called Vedantism as the only theological perspective among believers in the set of religious traditions known as Hinduism shows that Moran consulted Western educated urban intellectuals , or sources written by them. A villager like Sita would never have described her religion that way. See my review of The Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism on my former blog. Crypto-monotheism is the idea that what appears to be a polytheist religion isn't really one. It's actually a monotheist religion. All those other Gods are really aspects of the one High God. You find Western educated intellectuals in India explaining their religion in crypto-monotheist terms to Westerners. The overwhelming majority of books in English about Hinduism are Vedantist. It makes Western monotheists feel more comfortable, but the truth is much more chaotic. There is no central authority in Hinduism that decides on a single orthodox approach. To say otherwise is inauthentic and misleading. By the way, Moran also refers to the Goddess Indra. Indra is a male God. It doesn't require much research to find out that this is the case.
So while I liked some things about Rebel Queen---particularly the original focus of the book, Sita the protagonist and the Rani of Jhansi, it isn't going to be the best historical fiction that I read in 2016.
I am still very much looking forward to Michelle Moran's most recent book, Mata Hari's Last Dance. I am hoping that she shows us how and why she adopted the name Mati Hari which is my favorite part of her story.