Michelle Moran has been in my TBR list for a while. I have a love/hate relationship with historical fiction as there are some who really get it, and there are some who really don’t, but most fall into the category of “average, just average, really average.” Moran, unfortunately, falls into this category of “meh.” The criminal thing is that she could have been truly great if only she’d followed through.
She sets out at the beginning to tell you that she dumbed this down made things more accessible to modern audiences. I already object to this choice. Assume your audience is intelligent, willing to learn, and willing to meet you halfway in your offerings. The end of the book gives you an idea of how much research she did, which sounds considerable. It makes it sound like she really got into the story.
I wish she’d delivered on even a tenth of that promise. The best thing I’ve had to say about this book so far is that I’ve praised her for her strength of characterization in previous updates. About the 75% mark, I realized that praise was undeserved. By the 90% mark, I was cursing her name for rampant stupidity. Let me explain.
Rebel Queen is presumably the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai as told through the eyes of her loyal bodyguard Sita. This is a gimmick that’s been used often in historical fiction, from Mark Twain’s take on Joan of Arc on down the line. I have no problem with the setup. Indeed, Sita should have been a character worthy of joining the ranks of the warrior women I seem to “collect” stories about in fact or fiction. As the “Joan of Arc of India,” her Rani should have been held in the same regard, if not more so.
Let me address the Rani first. Whoever dubbed her the Joan of Arc of India is clueless, and I won’t blame the author for this one. That’s been around a while. There’s very little in common with Joan aside from facing off against the British and dying young. That’s like saying that everyone who ever had their head cut off is like Marie Antoinette. I won’t waste time with comparisons, but feel free to ask if truly want to go down that rabbit hole. The Rani is more a woman who was pushed into rebellion and fought against the idea until she simply couldn’t. As the author says in the end, the stories of her last stand vary wildly in terms of legendary acts, and separating fact from fiction is difficult. The author erred on the side of extreme caution and showed us precisely nothing. Nothing at all.
The bigger offenses here are in how Sita was characterized. I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know jack about the historical Sita. But I understand types. I know what it takes to be a warrior of her caliber. I know what it means to pick up a sword and wield it in combat against another person. I am nowhere near Sita’s level of accomplishment. She is presumed to be the best of the best of the best, the Rani’s elite. She is trained to be highly proficient in a wide variety of weapons and unarmed combat before even being selected to serve, at which point her training would only increase. By every definition, she should be an undisputed badass.
What we got was a simpering, weepy, and ultimately weak character. She had two moments where she got to shine. The first was the impossible Robin Hood bit where she split not one, but two arrows in rapid succession. The second was when she stood up to her grandmother during her month long exile where she returned home. Everything else was either told about, glossed over, or reported as happening “off screen.” Lame.
She is sworn to oaths of fealty and ultimate loyalty to her Rani, but she questions the idea of ratting out one of her fellow bodyguards because she was scolded for it before. Where matters of honor serve, the right thing to do here would be to alert to the poison. Take it in hand as proof and let the powers that be decide. This is what a soldier does. The politics and backhandedness were poorly handled.
The author not only made zero attempts to understand warrior culture, it’s like she went out of her way to avoid the issue entirely. If such a thing is not in the writer’s comfort zone, then the writer shouldn’t be writing a story like this. Period, end of story.
Having said all of that… Sita’s life at home in the village before she left is well told. This is what gave me hope. Thing is, I never saw the transition into the warrior she should have become apart from standing up to grandma. Whoop-de-doo.
I’ve mentioned the lack of detail when it comes to weapons. Here’s why this continues to bug me, apart from being an integral piece of the life of a warrior. The author went into excessive detail about clothes, jewelry, hairstyles, and various palace decorations. Everything seemed to be carved from teak or glowing of amber. Gee, I guess we know where the author’s head was here. World building is more than just what you might see in a photograph. Character building is far more than what’s being worn.
I’m not disgusted enough to give this one star because that would require going out of her way to make history wrong. She didn’t go out of her way to do anything, right or wrong. The effort simply isn’t here. It’s disappointing because it would have taken very little for her to make this a truly great novel. Can’t describe a swordfight? Talk to people who do it for fun. Watch it for yourself. Can’t describe the sound and effect of a cannon? Go find one. Some Renaissance festivals open the gates by cannon shot. You can find all manner of historical battlefield reenactments that use them. A writer is required to give the reader the illusion or delusion that we can trust what’s being written. You have to know what you’re talking about to make it convincing. Expertise isn’t needed. Dazzling with bullshit… a reader can see through that every time.
Bottom line, not a complete waste of time, but hardly what I’d call worthy of such time either. Curiosity is satisfied. If Ms. Moran doesn’t want to take the time to tell a story properly, I have no further intention of taking the time to read her work. It’s really that simple.