Review: Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

rebel queen by michelle moranFormat read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 355 pages
Publisher: Touchstone
Date Released: March 3, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

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.

My Review:

The Rebel Queen is the very best kind of historical fiction. Even though it is more than possible to find out how the story ends, the reader still hopes against hope that the protagonist will succeed. But history has already been written, and the ending is all too clear.

The story of the Rani of Jhansi is one where it is obvious that history is written by the victors. Because this is a story of the dark side of British colonialism and British imperialism. Their paternalistic treatment of any culture other than their own, and their firm belief that the world belonged to them, rode roughshod over the peoples and the beliefs that they ground under their conquering heel.

There is an underlying story here of economic conquest, native suppression and political storytelling spin that surprisingly echoes the completely fictional story in The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (reviewed at The Book Pushers)

The ways of empire are universal. And often fairly disgusting.

In The Rebel Queen we see the years leading up the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (sometimes called The Sepoy Rebellion) through the eyes of Sati, one of the female bodyguards of the Rani Lakshmi of Jhani. The Rani’s female guard contingent really did exist, and their function was as described, to protect the Rani and to keep her entertained.

Rani of Jhansi
Rani of Jhansi

The Rani was also as portrayed in the novel. Her husband left the governance of his province to her, while he spent outrageous sums of money to fund his never-ending desire to act in the theater, always taking the women’s parts and appearing more as a woman than a man. Their role reversal was outrageous for the time, and yet her governance of the province was respected.

Whether the Raja was gay or trans is a question that contemporary readers will ask, but the answer is not known. What is clear is that the Rani had to go to extraordinary measures to finally bear an heir to the province. This was necessary because the British had enacted a law, and had the force to make it stick, than any province with no male heir became part of the British protectorate. Considering that England at the time was ruled by Queen Victoria because there had been no male heirs to that throne, this was fairly blatant hypocrisy – but the British East India Company had the soldiers to make their decrees law.

When the heir to Jhani died, and his father the Raja followed not long after, the Rani found herself in the position of appealing to Queen Victoria to keep her throne. In the midst of the British desire to become an empire, with India as the “jewel in the crown”, the Rani’s pleas were doomed to failure.

And as we see in the story, the overthrow of Jhansi was part of a deliberate campaign on the part of the British to foment a rebellion in India, so that they could swoop in and claim that their military campaign was to restore order. The political spin was masterful.

In the middle of this story of increasing tension and the drive for war, we have the contrast of an enlightened court that recognized the intelligence and perspicacity of not just one exceptional woman, but all the women that she gathered around herself. In the story, this is contrasted by the life of the guard Sita in her home village before she came to court, and the tyranny of her grandmother over her life in purdah.

Some parts of her culture favored Sita, especially after she became a Rani’s guard, but many parts did not. Even so, we are left with the question of whether the British had the right to break her country and attempt to remake it to their own ends.

Some of the atrocities committed by both sides in the Rebellion will chill readers. But the story provides a context that the official histories have frequently lacked. In the end, as the story concludes with Sita many years later reflecting on the past, we see the cost to her and to the life and people that she loved.

Escape Rating A: This was an amazing story, which carried all the more resonance because it is so firmly based in history. And even though you know what’s coming, you still hope for a better ending than history gave these women.

I liked the way that the author used the character of Sita to relate events, rather than the perspective of the Rani. Sita is an outsider, from a small village, and comes to the court with fresh eyes. She is educated but has no experience of the court, so she sees both its beauty and the sometimes rotten heart within.

By using Sita as the point of view, we are also able to see into the barracks and inner workings of the guardswomen. We also get to observe the petty behaviors, jealous rivalries and the disruptive prejudices among this group of women who have to work together, but have nothing in common and often despise each other for reasons of caste or background.

Occasionally, the small-minded and extremely petty snits and slights feel like they take away from the story, but in the end, the small things mirror much larger concerns. While it sometimes feels like the nastiness of a fictional schoolroom, it also shows that while the Rani may have planned on keeping her friends close and her enemies close, she often confused proximity for friendship and mistook which was which. She trusted the wrong people, and they betrayed her.

But my comment about the schoolroom bullying atmosphere of the guards’ barracks is one small quibble of what was overall a marvelous book. The story of The Rebel Queen illuminates a piece of history that we sort of think we know in a way that tells a marvelous story and shines a glaring light on the dark shadows of the making of empire.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

youre never weird on the internet by felicia dayFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: autobiography
Length: 272 pages
Publisher: Touchstone
Date Released: August 11, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

From online entertainment mogul, actress, and “queen of the geeks” Felicia Day, a funny, quirky, and inspiring memoir about her unusual upbringing, her rise to Internet-stardom, and embracing her individuality to find success in Hollywood.

The Internet isn’t all cat videos. There’s also Felicia Day—violinist, filmmaker, Internet entrepreneur, compulsive gamer, hoagie specialist, and former lonely homeschooled girl who overcame her isolated childhood to become the ruler of a new world…or at least semi-influential in the world of Internet Geeks and Goodreads book clubs.

After growing up in the south where she was “homeschooled for hippie reasons”, Felicia moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming an actress and was immediately typecast as a crazy cat-lady secretary. But Felicia’s misadventures in Hollywood led her to produce her own web series, own her own production company, and become an Internet star.

Felicia’s short-ish life and her rags-to-riches rise to Internet fame launched her career as one of the most influential creators in new media. Now, Felicia’s strange world is filled with thoughts on creativity, video games, and a dash of mild feminist activism—just like her memoir.

Hilarious and inspirational, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is proof that everyone should embrace what makes them different and be brave enough to share it with the world, because anything is possible now—even for a digital misfit.

My Review:

This is a difficult book to review. I enjoyed it. A lot. I was compulsively reading it while at a baseball game with a bunch of friends and colleagues, which was rude but I couldn’t stop. But after reading it I have the feeling that I’m part of the intended audience, after all, I’m a female geek. Just not one with half the courage that Felicia Day demonstrates in her story.

You’re Almost Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is definitely a book for the same audience as The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (reviewed here), even though it covers the same ground in a very different way – and is also less optimistic and more upfront about the trolls that have invaded geek spaces and have their axes out and ground and waiting for any woman to dare to invade their defended turf.

There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker, back in 1993 before the internet became completely ubiquitous. Thanks to Wikipedia, I’m reproducing it here:

Peter Steiner's cartoon, as published in The New Yorker
Peter Steiner’s cartoon, as published in The New Yorker

But this cartoon sums up the early parts of Felicia Day’s involvement with computers and the internet – she was a somewhat isolated homeschooled kid who liked very geeky stuff and didn’t have a community she could be herself in – until she discovered computer gaming and online chat rooms and all the slightly awkward and totally amazing online communication tools that predated the WWW explosion.

And in those online spaces she found people who shared her passions, and who had no way of knowing that she was a 14 or 15 or 16 year old girl. But then, she knew little about their real lives or in-person selves either.

There was a lot of freedom in that ability to hide behind an avatar and a screen name that allowed her, and lots of others like her, to flourish.

It’s unfortunately the same kind of anonymity that permits the garbage spewed by gamergaters and their ilk, but that was then and this is now.

The story here is how Felicia managed to take all of that geekish wonder, along with a certain number of possibly OCD compulsions and a need for an audience, and turned it into a very quirky twisty-turny career that may have begun by being in the right place at the right time, but also included a lot of sheer cussed determination and a tough ability to fight her own personal demons while living a life out loud and online.

This is a story for anyone who believes in the adage, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” who is willing to put in a lot of unpaid sweat equity and put up with a lot of sweaty fears to finally reach that point where the money knocks on the battered door.

Reality Rating B+: If you have some personal history of geekishness, Felicia’s description of her journey into the early online spaces and the effect they had on her life can’t help but remind you of your own.

Or at least, it did me. I built my first PC in 1979 from a Heathkit, and the difference having a word processor and letter-quality printer made between my undergraduate and graduate degrees was amazing, even if the letter-quality printer did sound a lot like a small-scale artillery barrage.

I wasn’t as involved with online communities anywhere near as much as Felicia, but I remember the way the world opened up as it became possible to be involved with people all over the world who had the same geekish interests that I did – those same interests that generally get one laughed at or teased among people with more down-to-earth hobbies.

This experience was one that a lot of people who were online in the 1980s and 1990s will appreciate and remember fondly, like the sound of an old modem making a connection. I thought it sounded like a dragon breathing.

But Felicia did something that most of us don’t do – she made a career out of all of her geekish loves, in spite of being classically introverted and more than a bit shy. She pushed herself, and all of her friends, into pursuing a goal that either seemed crazy or unattainable at the beginning, and she made it happen.

She also talks about the cost to herself as she relentlessly pursued goals sometimes to the point of obsession, and certainly to the point of burnout. As in most fairy tales, the ring comes with a curse, and it bit her.

So she’s pretty upfront about her gaming addiction while she was still struggling, and her depression and burnout when she started making it but couldn’t let herself off the merry-go-round pursuit of perfection in all things. There’s a cautionary tale in here along with the quirkiness and the joy.

And last but not least, some serious talk about the entrenched misogyny in some online geek spaces and her own battles with the trolls. It’s sad and scary and sooner or later affects all women who think about standing out in online culture. This is true whether they stand up and stand out like Felicia and Anita Sarkeesian, or whether they self-censor or opt-out like so many of us do out of fear of online reprisal.

All in all, though, this is a positive story about figuring out what you love and pursuing that dream – and fighting your demons along the way.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.