In the 1800s, the Indian kingdom of Jhansi was ruled by Gangadhar Rao, the Raja — but those in the know understood that the real power of the kingdom was held by Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi. Even in those hyper-conservative years, Lakshmi pushed for change, doing away with some of the customs that limited Indian women of that time while earning the respect of the British sent to whittle away local power. She even had the Durga Dal, elite women warriors and her own personal bodyguard. Among these elite arrives Sita, a village girl educated in English poetry and archery. As Sita adjusts to life with the Durga Dal, Jhansi finds itself in incredible danger, the East India Trading Company having set its sights on conquering their lands next. Rebel Queen follows Sita from her childhood all the way to Jhansi’s eventual fall to the British, giving a personal spin to this tale of nations at war.
Moran’s storytelling is approachable and engaging. I knew virtually nothing about Indian culture and history, but Moran has a talent for quick, concise explanations of Indian customs. Moran smartly structures the book as a story told by Sita and intended to convince the British of the vitality of Indian culture and customs, which helps the conversational asides about Indian poetry, faith, dress, and more, feel more natural. But Moran doesn’t fetishize the culture by any means; part of the appeal of Rani Lakshmi is that she was fighting to get rid of some of the traditions that blatantly oppressed women, and Moran doesn’t shy away from portraying how bad things could be for a young girl in rural India. The book is never better than it is when it is dealing with Sita’s youth and her sister’s upbringing. The interpersonal drama between the Durga Dal, which drives a huge portion of the book, is a bit more conventional, but Sita and Moran keep the book fresh even when the plot itself slips a bit into cliche.
As it does all too often with the weakest running element: Kahini, a woman more blatantly scheming and manipulative than Draco Malfoy who nevertheless wanders the story untouched until her inevitable (like, ninth) betrayal. There, she’s one of a dozen elements rushed through in a too-busy climax. The ‘Rebel Queen’ section of the book is maybe fifty pages, almost none of which focuses on her actual rebellion. While Sita’s narration helps make the early asides feel more naturalistic, it unfortunately hampers the climax, as Sita is separated from the Rani at a key moment and only gets gossip about her actions. It would be fine if Sita’s story was brought to a satisfying conclusion on its own, but the split focus kills a lot of the momentum as Rebel Queen approaches the finish line.
But until that moment, Rebel Queen is a compelling, enjoyable work of historical fiction. Moran has a gift for portraying broad, sweeping conflicts in easy-to-understand human terms, and consequently Rebel Queen’s best moments are absolutely engrossing. Unfortunately thin characterization on… well, everyone except for Sita and Lakshmi causes a few emotional beats to fall flat, but Sita and Lakshmi themselves are fantastically well-drawn, interesting characters.
I enjoyed Rebel Queen, and while I often wished there were, in the end, a bit more to it than there was, Moran still found a powerful story here. This may have been a conflict of nations, a story of corporate greed on an almost unheard-of scale and imperialistic designs run amok, but at the end of the day, it’s the characters that capture our hearts, that make us feel the story. For all its flaws, Rebel Queen will make you feel it.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian for updates on where you can find his writing on books, comics, film, and more!
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Touchstone. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.