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.
I have read all but one of Michelle Moran’s books so far (still missing her latest one!). I find it interesting because while I find myself enjoying her books, I never really consider any of her books my favourites or Moran as a favourite author. As I continue thinking about why I read her books while not really wishing to buy a physical copy on my shelf (living in a small cupboard really restricts the space for physical books—I have to absolutely love them/foresee multiple re-readings for me to buy a physical copy), I end up with a “common list” of Moran’s signature elements in all her stories that do not quite gel with me or my reading preferences. However, I must say that I see improvement in her writing as I progress through reading her later books, and she is a decent writer. It is definitely a “it’s me not you” case.
After reflecting and thinking about all her books, I notice that Moran really likes using a historical-character (not necessarily historical figure) in the shadows and using that character as the POV character. The only exception is “The Heretic Queen” where Nefertari is the POV character. All her other books—“Nefertiti” has Mutnodjmet as the POV character, “Cleopatra’s Daughter” has Cleopatra Selene, “Madame Tussaud” well, has Madame Tussad etc.—follows this formula to a T. While the POV character lives through some exciting and changing times (the whole Akhenaten debacle, the Romans conquering the world with Augustus, the French Revolution), they are not the main players.
Mutnodjmet is sent away constantly from the Egyptian Court when all the changes are taking occurring. Madame Tussaud has maybe two encounters with the French royal family and watches in the sidelines as Robespierre and company ushers in the French Revolution. And it is the same with Rebel Queen—it features one of Queen Lakshmi’s female guards/warriors. Unfortunately, Moran’s choice of POV character severely limits the action and scope of the history that she is writing about; I for one really want to know how Queen Lakshmi feels when making decisions or strategizing to ensure her kingdom is not wrestled away by the British. Instead, I always walk away feeling interested but not sated by the knowledge that is presented in the books.
It also does not service Moran’s story when said character often needs to leave the place of intrigue to deal with family problems—it occurs in ‘Nerfititi’ as well as ‘Rebel Queen’. The scope of political or historical issues that readers can be exposed to is narrowed immensely, causing many of the historical events to be watered down or be limited to the bigger events. Throughout my reading experience I wish for a the history and the fictional aspects to flow smoother so that I can learn more about the world that Moran is writing—because while she has done all the research and knows the facts, she describes it in a way that makes the history a backdrop to the POV’s characters individual struggles instead of integrating them on a greater level.
Another element that I find rather annoying (but familiar since I have read most of Moran’s books) is that there is always an awkward romance subplot that does not mesh with the main plot at all. It does not even necessarily serve the central plotline in any meaningful way, other than giving the POV character a romantic subplot so that they will have more events to occupy their time. In Sita’s story, she is eventually paired off with a very nice captain of the guards—I don’t remember his name at the moment and I don’t consider him as important enough as a character to look it up. As I have mention, he is a very nice guy and I actually find him rather endearing with the qualities that Moran gives him, but again since he is a secondary character he has almost no character development beyond the romantic interest and does not drastically impact the main plot. Therefore the whole romance subplot blossoms through cute meet-greets, a quick trip to England together (along with the rest of the routine), and the revolution. If readers are not told that they are epic lovers and I always have thought it is a much more subtle (and bland) relationship.
Honestly, I find Moran’s strengths in character development and character relationships to be devoted to familial relationships and friendships; I absolutely adore the family problems that Sita has to cope with and how they lead her to join Durga Dal (the all-female guards of Queen Lakshima). Family seems to be the heart of this book, since Sita’s motivations for her various actions stem from her relationships with her sister, grandmother, and father. Her loyalty to her family is a huge part of her character and it is wonderful seeing that she never strays from this loyalty as she becomes a seasoned member of the Durga Dal. The friendships between the various members of the Durga Dal is also beautiful because it demonstrates how these females will have to work together to protect the Queen (theoretically) and how they represent different classes of societies in India /the Kingdom of Jhansi.
Plot-wise, this is a very fast read. The summary given by the publisher is slightly misleading, but I find the actual plot just as interesting. The focus on the story is about Sita’s path to becoming a Durga Dal and her adventures during her time at Court, juxtaposing with the British’s attempts to conquer India. When she encounters the different members of her team, watching Sita figuring out who is friend and who is foe is quite amusing. She is a fish out of the water and I absolutely adore it. It takes her awhile to navigate the existing relationships at Court, but it is fun because Sita takes the reader along to understand the political situation (or whatever of it that is exposed to Sita) in Jhansi. Another great thing is Sita’s opportunity to visit Queen Victoria in London; some readers comment that it did not advance the plot, and I respectfully disagree. Given that Moran is telling the story through Sita’s POV, the only way to really highlight and contrast the differences between the British and the Indians is through the comparison of the two capitals and the people that she encounters. I think that it is a strong contrast and it makes me root for the protagonists even more as well as understand their difficulty in keeping the kingdom together. The atrocious acts that the British commit also come alive later in the book as Sita’s family members are affected, causing her to react in certain ways.
Since I know virtually nothing about India or the whole British conquest of India, it is wonderful having Sita slip in explanations as part of her memoir to get the readers more immersed in the world. There are enough “info-dumps” for both the history and the customs; while I always knew that Indians don’t eat cows, it is interesting to learn that it is not because they “worship” them but rather because they respect cows that give them milk. These little details give a reader the peek into a different world/different time.
This is a fun read and I am glad that I picked it up, although I wish there is more on the focus on Queen Lakshima so that the complex struggle between the various kingdoms in India and Britain is more vivid and well-explained. Given what explanations are presented in the book, I can’t help but scratch my head as there is still so much more that we can learn about the country fittingly describe as “The Jewel in the Crown” by the British Empire.