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Review: Rebel Queen

Review: Rebel Queen

Title: Rebel Queen
Author: Michelle Moran
Published: 2015
Length: 354 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ½

Unable to marry due to her family’s poverty, Sita devotes herself to military training and education in the hope of joining the Rani of Jhansi’s elite female guard, the Durga Dal, and thus of providing a suitable dowry for her younger sister. After a life spent in purdah, unable to leave her own courtyard, Jhansi and the royal court come as a shock to Sita. She is intelligent and able, but struggles to understand the intrigue and machinations of the ambitious people around her. Sita’s personal struggles are overshadowed, however, when the British become interested in annexing her mistress’ kingdom. Sita and Rani Lakshmibai must ultimately decide whether to keep the peace or to fight.

After all the praise I’ve heard about Michelle Moran, this book was an enormous let-down.

For one thing, its title–and blurb–are misleading in the extreme. Rebel Queen (or, in the UK, The Last Queen of India) is told from the POV of someone else, a character the blurb calls Lakshmi’s “closest confidant” (which Sita really isn’t). The queen in question is a significant supporting character, but nothing more.

The worst part of Rebel Queen is its juvenile, somewhat condescending tone. It’s told in first-person by Sita, who is supposedly writing it as an account for British readers many years later. It reads like YA–maybe even middle-grade in some places–and Moran (or her editors, or both of them, I don’t know) decided to approach the whole thing as if her readers knew nothing about Indian culture or history and needed their hands held. Perhaps this assumption is fair, but it ruins the story. I’ll be the first to admit that India is a bit of an enigma to me, even though I do have some background knowledge. So many different regions, traditions, gods–of course, any reader might feel in over their heads! However, Sita constantly interrupts the narrative to info-dump about this or that, phrasing her lessons in a way that set my teeth on edge. “If you don’t know,…” “I know Western readers struggle to understand…” “Think of it this way, maybe that will help.” “If you have ever seen [X] then you will understand that [Y].” “The only thing most foreigners know about India is…”

She constantly defines words in the middle of the narrative, too, and sometimes switches between two of them (i.e., “rani” vs. “queen”), so imagine my shock when I discovered that there’s a full glossary in the back! If you provide a glossary and context clues, slowing the story down for the sake of definitions isn’t necessary.

All this hand-holding also makes Sita seem like a bit of a hypocrite when, later in the novel, she is baffled and overwhelmed by the English traditions she must learn. (Forks and knives and spoons, oh my!) It’s almost as if she experiences Western culture in the same way that Westerners experience hers. Who’d’ve thought?! Was there any need for the author to condescend one way or the other?

Apart from the tone, the writing is just not very complex; even if Sita did not talk down to readers, it would probably still read like YA. Clumsy, heavy-handed similes–“if you have ever had the opportunity to visit a zoo and seen them feeding the lions, then you will recognize the way that [X] looked in that moment…”–and repeated telling-not-showing squashes any lyricism and beauty trying to escape from the prose.

(There are some very plainly incorrect passages that any editor should’ve caught, too, such as when Sita describes the tree-lined coast of England as being thick and green like “jagged emeralds”–in December. But I digress.)

The pacing is way off as well. Some things are rushed in the extreme (at one point, an entire year passes in the space of maybe thirty pages) while others drag. There’s no consistency. And despite how action-packed the last section of the book is, it takes up less space in the book than the rani’s pregnancy. Moran even cops out of narrating almost the entire rebellion, saying instead that:

I won’t describe for you the bloodshed and cruelty I saw that day. I don’t wish to remember it, and I don’t like to accept that I am capable of the acts I committed. (339)

What?! No. Bad author. Why are you even writing the book, then?

Sita never, ever proves her prowess as a warrior except in a few scenes where she accurately hits targets with an arrow. And when she finally has an opportunity to prove her skills…that happens. It’s beyond disappointing. It’s lazy writing and characterization coming from an acclaimed author.

Maybe the fact that there is way too much stuff in way too little space has something to do with the pacing issues as well. It tries to focus on everything and instead focuses effectively on nothing. The initial conflict/plot deals with Sita’s family and her abusive grandmother; the next conflict deals with mean girl drama between Sita and another Burgavasi; the final, larger conflict is of course that between the British Empire and Jhansi. There’s also a romance thrown in for good measure. And this book is only 340 pages long!

That brings me, at last, to the characters.

Sita is about as interesting as dry white toast. There were a select few moments when I really felt for her, but I never thought I knew her. She comes across as a bit of a Mary Sue: beautiful, intelligent, well-read, strong, brave, loyal, selfless, even skilled in all kinds of weaponry, and a quick favorite of the rani…but as I mentioned above, her martial skills are rarely demonstrated. The same goes for her supposed intelligence and bravery. She never learns from her mistakes; as one of the other Durgavasi tells her, “You may be the quickest girl the Durga Dal has seen in quite some time, but you can’t follow even the simplest warning.” She feels like the same kind of empty, unoriginal heroines that populate dozens of books: a book-lover, supposedly smart, and beautiful by default. Boring.

Rani Lakshmibai herself seems like a genuinely fascinating historical figure–but she, too, was dull in this tale except in a few places where she displayed great passion. I didn’t care about her one way or the other.

Neither Sita’s love interest and best friend have any memorable qualities. They were both just names on the page to me. Her feelings for the two of them never jump out at me or feel particularly significant, and so I felt nothing for them, either.

The villains, meanwhile, are ridiculous, exaggerated, and over-the-top in every way. The first, Sita’s grandmother, tries to sell her into prostitution when she’s just nine. She also belittles and beats Sita and her much-younger sister for every tiny transgression they make. The other is another Durgavasi called Kahini; she begins as a typical Mean Girl, but as the story progresses, she becomes truly diabolical. Moran gives her (fictional) actions far too much historical weight. Between them, they spoiled a good portion of the novel for me–though at least they have personalities.

And then there is the rani’s husband, the raja, Gangadhar Rao. Moran portrays him as an outrageously effeminate man fond of theatre and luxury…and quite obviously also fond of men. Sita has this ridiculous conversation with her friend one night:

“Some men simply have no interest in women.”

“But is this only in Jhansi?”

[…] “Sita don’t tell me you think this is unique to Jhansi. This has existed since the beginning of time. The raja was born this way, the same way you were born with an interest in men.” (195)

I don’t know the general Indian attitude towards homosexuality, then or now, but I doubt girls raised in conservative families like Sita and her friend would be so understanding and even quote Lady Gaga throw around modern phases like “oh, he was just born this way“!

But that’s almost beside the point, because when I looked up Gangadhar Rao, what little I found describes him…a bit differently. Instead of a spendthrift who left the real political and economic decisions to his wife, he was “an able administrator [who] improved the financial condition of Jhansi,” “possessed wisdom, diplomacy, and was a lover of art and culture,” and “the British were impressed by his statesmanlike qualities.” [x] While his taste “was quiet extravagant,” he also held “extremely old fashioned and repressive” personal views. [x] While my “sources” aren’t a lot to go on (they’re the best I could find), they certainly seem to contradict Moran’s portrait in which the raja enjoys playing the part of women on stage and dresses so that, behind his back, the British supposedly call him the queen and his wife, the true raja. Nothing gets my goat in historical fiction worse than this: deliberately twisting the personality of a real historical figure.

Dishonor on you, Ms. Moran. Dishonor on your cow!

I did enjoy seeing Queen Victoria portrayed, correctly, as a rather silly woman far more concerned with court etiquette than foreign political affairs (her husband Prince Albert was the mover and shaker in their marriage). It’s even speculated that she demanded the title “Empress of India” out of jealousy. Her eldest daughter, Vicky, married the heir to the German Kaiser, meaning that someday Vicky would outrank her mother as the German Empress.

The total dismissal of Parliament, though, I really didn’t like. Sita may be Indian and hold traditional ideas, but she’s supposed to be intelligent and well-read, thus not totally set in her ways. Instead, she grumbles about how Queen Victoria just sits on her fat arse and lets Parliament tell her what to do without considering that it might good for a monarch to be unable to dictate things at the drop of a hat.

Before this review totally gets away from me, I will say that Rebel Queen has definitely inspired me to learn more about Rani Lakshmibai, and it seems to have had the same effect on many readers. Even here, she had some inspiring and inspired moments, such as when she spoke up against sati, the practice of widows self-immolating on their husbands’ funeral pyres:

[W]hat woman has ever changed her husband’s fate by joining him on his pyre? And what woman has ever built a stronger kingdom by disappearing from it? Our ancestors believed that committing sati was an act of courage. I say that with the exception of the goddess Sati, who after all, is immortal, it is an act of cowardice! Who will raise her children, or care for her parents, or tend her garden? No. If I die, it will be by the sword, not by the flame! (214)

If only her character had been that badass throughout the novel. sigh

To be fair, there are a few truly lovely passages scattered throughout the narrative, and here and there the world of Jhansi and of northern India really comes alive in all its colorful, musical glory. In certain parts of the book, I also experienced real fury and disgust, not only towards the British and the villains of the novel, but towards the regressive, cruel attitudes concerning women expressed by many the characters.

Rebel Queen is not a good book. At no point did it convince me that Michelle Moran is the author so many have claimed she is. It feels rushed and lazy, a spur-of-the-moment idea Moran didn’t really have her heart in. It feels like the editors and publishers knew they could make money off of Moran’s name, and thus didn’t bother to help her improve what could have been a decent story.

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