I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this book.
First, it is painfully clear to me that whoever wrote the synopsis for Rebel Queen didn’t actually read the book itself. There is very little action, there is no “women’s army”, there is no moment where the Rani rides into battle like “Joan of Arc”, (what even is that comparison??? why the fuck would you put a comparison to Joan of Arc in a story about the British Empire colonizing India!? have you no shame!?) there is no “fearless ruler making her way in a world dominated by men” because the men want the Rani to be in charge; and finally, this story has been explored by a ton of people…just not white people who like to forget what utter pieces of shit the British Empire were. (And to some extent, still are)
What this book is about is the main character, Sita Bhosale. Almost half of the book is spent with her in her childhood home, and it isn’t until much later that she arrives in the Queen’s guard. Even then, it barely seems like Sita is a guard at all. None of them act like there is any point to their extensive combat training; either assassination attempts are hideously uncommon, or these women are incredibly bad at their jobs. (Or the author forgot that Queen’s guards should, y’know, act like guards.) Aside from a few very brief instances, these women seem to simply exist, orbiting the Queen and going through an endless series of routines. They also bicker constantly with each other, which was disappointing. Part of why I read this book in the first place was I was hoping to see some strong female friendships. While we do eventually see some bonding between Sita and the others, for the most part it’s just animosity, sniping, and betrayal. If I want to see women throwing other women under the bus, I can just log onto Twitter, thanks. I don’t need it in my fiction, too.
While I didn’t mind the more personal focus of the book, I guess I would have liked to have been more prepared for this being the narrative. This story is not really about the Rani, it is about Sita, and her experiences. We don’t even see the Queen for huge chunks of the book–and that’s fine! But for goodness sake, say so upfront!
Second, there were some pretty uncomfortable moments in this book when I felt like the author fell into the trap of “brown people oppressed by misogyny and sexism are in awe of “liberated” white women”, which…no. A thousand times, no. For one thing, regarding the women of Victorian England as “liberated” is laughable. For another, this kind of narrative has no place in a story about British colonization. Seriously, why were these scenes even in the book?
Third and final, the last quarter of the book is absolutely sickening. This isn’t due to the writing; more the subject matter at hand. (It’s supposed to be sickening) I felt genuinely nauseous and sort of like I’d been dropped from a great height after finishing this novel, because even though it never really goes into great detail about what has happened to these people in the wake of the British invasion, the implications are obvious and brutal. My revulsion was so strong, it took me nearly a week to work up the nerve to even write this review, because I wasn’t sure if I could corral my thoughts into any sort of coherence beyond making vomit sounds.
Bonus round: What the fuck is the title of this book? I saw someone on GR mention that it had a different name in the UK, so maybe that one is better, but “Rebel Queen”? No. Doing your best to survive an invasion isn’t a “rebellion”. Saying that the Indian forces were a “rebellion” is whitewashing, pure and simple.
In conclusion, I’m still pretty torn about this book. While on the one hand, I enjoyed reading it and pretty much couldn’t put it down for a couple of days…there was a lot of stuff about it which left me wondering if I was just receiving some nicely packaged propaganda about what actually took place during this time. Thanks to my overwhelming ignorance on the subject of Indian history, (great job, American school system!) I’m no great judge of this. Also, I felt like this was another instance of me picking up a book thinking it would be fun and subversive but it just…wasn’t. And on top of all that, it was intensely triggering too. So that was great.
My final recommendation is to try it for yourself, if you think it looks interesting. I’m not sure which way I fall on the subject of Rebel Queen, to be honest.
(For those who would like specific trigger warnings: Rape, CSA, violence, emotional abuse, some physical abuse)