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Young Sita’s mother passed away in childbirth when Sita was quite young. Their loving but physically disabled father and strict grandmother are raising her and her infant sister. Money is tight so Sita’s grandmother tries to sell her to a temple to essentially be a prostitute. Her father finds out and becomes enraged. But he knows that because of his disability, he doesn’t have the money to give both of his daughters a proper wedding dowry when that time comes. He and his best friend decide to train Sita to become a member of Queen Lakshmi’s Durgavasi, a group of female bodyguards. The competition is fierce and they never know when a position will open in the Durgavasi’s ranks. Sita trains tirelessly because she knows this is her only way out of a miserable life working in a temple.
The title and the official synopsis led me to believe that I was going to read a book centered on Queen Lakshmi of Jhansi, “India’s Joan of Arc.” Imagine my surprise when I started reading chapter after chapter describing Sita’s life in a small village. It was interesting enough but I honestly chose the book to meet the Uncorked Reading Challenge‘s prompt for March, “A Historical Fiction Novel Featuring Inspiring Women.” Someone could argue that Sita’s rise from almost nothing is inspiring, but I wanted to find out about Queen Lakshmi’s rebellion against the British soldiers overtaking her country. She does eventually enter the story but she’s almost a minor character. Even the actual rebellion mostly happens off-screen while the narrative focuses on related drama in Sita’s own life.
Stepping back and rating the book I actually read instead of the book I expected, this is a little…bland. I finished it about five weeks ago but I’ve already forgotten a lot.
Reading this as a 21st-century woman, parts of the book were maddening. A woman’s only available options were marriage, prostitution, or becoming one of twelve (I believe?) female bodyguards in the country. In Sita’s village, women lived behind walls and wore veils on the rare occasions when they ventured out. Men treated women like property and could cast them off for any reason, even for unimaginably horrifying events that were out of their control. I guess in some parts of the world, things really haven’t changed that much though, have they? That said, it was remarkable how much freedom the Durgavasi had to roam around, train with weapons, and appear in public.
The sheer hatefulness of some of the other women is frustrating. It starts with Sita’s grandmother trying to sell her into prostitution but doesn’t get any better from there. Why are some women so determined to tear others down instead of lifting them up?
I’ve enjoyed the other books by Michelle Moran that I’ve read but this one fell just a bit short of the mark. Still, if you read it looking for a peek into the lives of women in 19th-century India, you’ll be satisfied.
If you liked Rebel Queen, you might also like my reviews of
- Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran
- Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran
- The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan, read by Sneha Mathan
Buy Rebel Queen from Malaprop’s Bookstore in beautiful Asheville, NC or