Published by Touchstone
Publication date: March 3rd 2015
As a fan of historical fiction I often find myself reading about women as either accessories or behind-the-scenes figures so it was a welcome delight to read Michelle Moran’s Rebel Queen, about Lakshmi, the Rani (or queen) of one of the states in India in the late 19th century. The novel is told from the perspective of a young woman named Sita who lives with her family in a small village outside the capital of Jhansi. When her mother dies her grandmother tries to sell her as a prostitute even though she is only nine years old. When her father learns of this he decrees that he will train Sita to be a bodyguard, part of what was known as the Durga Dal—a female contingent of ten educated warriors that protects the Rani. Through her father’s dedication and his insistence that she learn English, Sita earns a position when she is sixteen and moves to the capital of Jhansi. There she experiences a world so different from her own it may as well be another planet. When the Raj dies and the British move to take over the kingdom what has been a time of luxury and prestige turns into one of political intrigue and battle.
Sita’s story is fiction, but the Rani was a very real woman who led a rebellion after her husband died. Moran writes of life in the palace and of India with such color and force that it is riveting reading. Rebel Queen conveys the duality of the times in that for many women life was spent in purdah (complete isolation from the outside world), married off before thirteen, and dying young on their husband’s funeral pyre. Against these customs, life for Sita is another world; a world where a woman rules despite her husband being the Raj and the women around her move freely, appreciated for their intellect and athleticism. All this occurs in the background as the Rani Lakshmi maneuvers to keep her state out of the hands of the ever encroaching British. Moran combines these conflicts of gender, race, caste, and colonialism so skillfully that Rebel Queen is as explosive as the chapter in history it represents.