Book review: The Last Queen of India by Michelle Moran

The Last Queen of India byMichelle Moran
The Last Queen of India byMichelle Moran

When the British army set its sights on India in the 1850s, it came up against an unlikely and formidable opponent… the widowed Rani Lakshmi, queen of Jhansi state.

Instead of surrendering and giving the British a quick and easy conquest, she raised two armies – one male and one female—and rode into battle like the legendary French warrior Joan of Arc.

The torrid tale of one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the most famous woman in Indian history is brought to vivid life in a thrilling historical novel by Michelle Moran.

Moran, who has visited archaeological sites around the world, transports us back to the age of the empire-building British Raj, a dangerous time of resistance, rebellion and cultural clashes.

Rani Lakshmi’s brave stand was all the more remarkable as many Indian women – both Hindu and Muslim – were still forced to withdraw into purdah, the religious and social practice of female seclusion which restricted their personal, social and economic activities outside the home.

Against this upheaval, Moran weaves the seductive story of Sita, a young Hindu girl from Jhansi who becomes a soldier in the Durga Dal, an elite group of Queen Lakshmi’s most trusted female warrior guards.

Trained in all the martial skills, including how to sever a man’s head with a single stroke of her sword, she will fight alongside her queen in a battle that will become legendary.

When nine-year-old Sita’s mother dies in childbirth in 1840, she and her new baby sister Anuja are left in the care of their cruel grandmother but, thanks to her enlightened father, Sita has skills far above the average girl in India.

Well versed in literature and able to speak English, Sita plans to escape a terrible destiny mapped out by her grandmother by becoming a member of Queen Lakshmi’s imperial guard, even though it means pledging herself to a life of celibacy.

For six years, Sita works hard at her physical development and changes from a slim, beautiful girl into a muscular warrior with well-honed martial skills in swordsmanship, shooting, fighting and archery.

When she finally wins a place in the elite guard, she quickly becomes a shining star and agrees to train Rani Lakshmi in the art of military combat. A close friendship develops between the two women but trouble threatens.

Lakshmi’s court is dangerously divided and rumours are rife that the country is under threat. Meanwhile, in London, advisers to Queen Victoria are looking to extend the power of the empire, and India is coveted as the next jewel in the imperial crown.

Although her soldiers are little match against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi is determined to fight back against an army determined to take away the land she loves.

But in the ensuing battle, will the bond between Lakshmi and Sita be broken for ever?

Moran is at her storytelling best in The Last Queen of India, melding fascinating history and imaginative fiction into a beautiful and powerful story of love, loss, heartbreaking choices and breathtaking courage.

Immaculately researched and packed with high emotion, high drama and a cast of dynamic characters, this is a wonderful, sweeping story with a compelling sense of time and place that is sure to delight fans of historical fiction.

(Quercus, paperback, £7.99)