Summary: When the British Empire sets its sights on India in the 1850s, it expects a quick and easy conquest. After all, India is not even a country, but a collection of kingdoms on the subcontinent. But when the British arrive in the Kingdom of Jhansi, expecting its queen to forfeit her crown, they are met with a surprise. Instead of surrendering, Queen Lakshmi raises two armies—one male, one female—and rides into battle like Joan of Arc. Although her soldiers are little match against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi fights against an empire determined to take away the land she loves.
Told from the perspective of Sita, one of the guards in Lakshmi's all-female army and the queen’s most trusted warrior, The Last Queen of India traces the astonishing tale of a fearless ruler making her way in a world dominated by men. In the tradition of her bestselling novel Nefertiti, which Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, called “a heroic story with a very human heart,” Michelle Moran once again brings a time and place rarely explored in historical fiction to rich, vibrant life. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)
Review: I feel like I need my own strand of pearls like the rani's to clutch as I try to review this book. It is simply written, artfully crafted, heartbreakingly delivered, and, in a word, is worthwhile. This is one of the most heartbreaking periods of history, the seizure and humiliation of a nation - of kingdoms, principalities, and peoples - all in the name of Western Progress.
Sita has lost her mother and any hope for a normal future within a few days of each other. She confides in her father despite threats from her grandmother and shortly thereafter begins training to audition for the Queen's private guard - not only a daunting task, but one that would truly take a miracle to bring to pass. Through Sita's eyes, we witness Moran's retelling of the rani's bravery in the last years of her kingdom. We see the despair at the loss of both her son and husband. The fears of rebellions in neighboring kingdoms is brought to light. Even a deliciously infuriating subplot of subterfuge and court life is richly included, all through the eyes of our guard.
It reminded me of M.M. Kaye's writing and novels, although not as encapsulating or as epic. I don't mean that disparagingly, Moran has focused on Sita and her personal involvement with the fall of India,while Kaye uses her characters to cover decades and continents of history. But the subject matter, the ability to pull a reader in and make them care, the ghosts of smells and colors just lingering - it made me want to go dig out my Kaye novels and enjoy an India-centric readathon.
I devoured this novel in a day. It surprised me how much I enjoyed it - I was expecting less than was delivered, and am quite pleased with what I was given.
Rating: Four stars
For the Sensitive Reader: The British policy of conscripting comfort women is brought to light and impacts one of the more prominent characters in the book. There is murder, there are accounts of the horrific murders and acts of torture both sides perpetrated upon one another.