Book review: Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

I picked this book up at the library because I was in the mood for an adventure story, and I liked the idea of something from a very different cultural perspective than what I’m used to.  The latter was certainly the case – as the story centers on the queen of an Indian kingdom and her contingent of female guards in the late 19th century – but on the former point, the folks writing the liner notes on the book jacket had a very different view of the story than I got.  And thankfully so, as it turns out.  While I certainly wouldn’t have minded an adventure story in the tradition of the Japan-oriented Shogun, this proved a book much more centered on character and setting and historical context than on action, and that was for me the more rewarding approach.

The plot involves the confrontation of the queen of an Indian kingdom with the encroachment of the British empire, whose constantly increasing demands on the generally compliant kingdom eventually leave the ruler no choice but to fight an unwinnable war.  Yet, told from the perspective of one of the queen’s female guards some sixty years after the events that are described, the story doesn’t get to the fighting until practically the end of the book. The plot development actually focuses far more on the rise of the narrator, Sita, as she progresses from naive villager to favored confidant of the queen, and I found this approach much more intriguing and satisfying.  There is much in this plot development that becomes important and relevant in the dramatic final events of the story, but one doesn’t have the sense that he is being led toward anything in particular.  Perhaps some readers would consider this a fault, but on the contrary for me, it was a much more thoughtful and insightful setup, giving the events a context much richer than would have emerged from a story merely about the events leading up to the climactic battle scenes. I felt I got a very vivid portrait of the elite contingent of female guards and how they served and interacted with each other.

All this said, I would have appreciated more narrative detail in the final pages of the battle scenes. Especially considering that a substantial focus of the story is on the female guards and warriors, a richer description of how they fought and served would have been more compelling. Moran makes a valiant effort at blending the intrigue and betrayals with the British condescension and the horrors of battle, but ultimately one doesn’t feel the drama of the final conflict as intensely as one would hope.  But this really is a mild failing.  The fact is that the other elements are the more important aspects of the story — the interpersonal relationships among the queen’s guard, the cultural awakening of the narrator as she advances from a child in a small village forced by custom to stay permanently indoors because she is female to a sophisticated and highly skilled warrior in a large cosmopolitan fortress, the personal values and connections Sita has within her unusual family.

Finally, I also found it interesting to view British imperialism from the point of view of the late-19th century Indian continent. Moran’s narrator, writing decades after the events she describes when Britain’s takeover of India is complete, describes the early invasion of her country in terms of the famous metaphor of the camel’s nose under the tent. I suppose a reasonably educated person should not be surprised anymore by the insidious duplicity of Western imperialists, who, like the Americans swarming over the natives of their continent, couch their expansionist intentions in self-justifying moral excuses, but it is still eye-opening to see the events unfold and to watch them from the point of view of a highly educated, sophisticated woman who is able to very ably portray precisely how subtly and unfairly she and her people have been duped.

Because the story is not as exciting page by page as, say, Shogun, I couldn’t rate it quite on a par with that great adventure story. But Rebel Queen is a richly developed portrait and an interesting depiction built on actual historical events, and it has thoughtful and thought-provoking character and plot developments that give it rewards all its own.