I love historical fiction set in India and was instantly intrigued when I saw that Michelle Moran’s new novel, Rebel Queen, was described as the story of Rani Lakshmibai who rebelled against the British by ‘raising two armies — one male, one female — and riding into battle like Joan of Arc.’ Once I started to read the book, I found that it wasn’t quite what I’d expected, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read two of Michelle Moran’s other novels and while I think my favourite of the three is still The Second Empress, I still enjoyed this one and thought it was much better than Cleopatra’s Daughter.
Rani Lakshmibai (or Lakshmi as she is called throughout this novel) rules the state of Jhansi along with her husband, Raja Gangadhar Rao, until his death in 1853. As the raja has died leaving no biological male heir, Jhansi is annexed by the British East India Company, and during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 the rani and her people find themselves caught up in the middle of the conflict. By the rani’s side are her ten Durgavasi – a small, elite group of highly-trained, highly-skilled women who serve as both guards and trusted friends. It is through the eyes of one of these women, Sita Bhosale, that the story of Jhansi unfolds.
Sita Bhosale grows up in a small village many miles from the city of Jhansi and, like the other village girls and women, she lives in purdah, secluded from the view of men outside her family. After her mother dies in childbirth, her father tells her that there will not be enough money to provide a dowry for both Sita and her little sister. With very few options open to a young woman who fails to marry well, he suggests that she begin training for a position in the Durga Dal, the rani’s personal guard. Following several years of hard work, Sita has learned all the skills she needs – she can ride a horse and knows how to use a sword, a pistol and a bow – and soon she is on her way to Jhansi to become the rani’s newest Durgavasi.
As our narrator, Sita is a character who is easy to like. I enjoyed watching her train for the Durga Dal, I was fascinated by her descriptions of her early days in Jhansi where everything – the rani and raja’s court, life in the palace, the absence of purdah – is new and strange, and I sympathised as she found herself the target of the raja’s beautiful, scheming cousin, Kahini, one of her fellow Durgavasi. But from the title, Rebel Queen, and the description of the novel, I had expected this to be the story of Rani Lakshmibai rather than the story of Sita. We don’t really get to know the rani at all until the second half of the novel and only a few chapters at the end are spent on the events of the Sepoy Rebellion (the promised ‘raising of armies and riding into battle’), which was disappointing.
The author assumes the reader has no prior knowledge of Indian culture or history, so she has Sita explain to us how the British East India Company came to be in India, the meanings of customs such as purdah and the Hindu caste system, and the basics of Ayurvedic medicine. While I already knew some of the things Sita tells us, there were still lots of facts and details that were new to me, so this was both an entertaining and an educational read. However, I was surprised to read that the British were flying ‘the red and black Union Jack’ from the buildings of Jhansi, and this made me wonder about the overall accuracy of the novel!
Despite the few problems I’ve mentioned, I did find this an interesting and compelling story. I do think it would have been good to have had at least part of the novel written from the rani’s perspective, but I still enjoyed getting to know Sita and the women of the Durga Dal.
Note: This book has been published in the UK as The Last Queen of India and I think the UK title and description are more appropriate, giving a better idea of what the story is about. However, I have referred to the US edition throughout this post, as this was the version I received for review through NetGalley.