The Last Queen of India by Michelle Moran is a historical fiction. Many readers might have picked up this book thinking that it is based on the queen Rani Lakshmi Bai. Though the title suggests that the book is about the great legendary queen Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, well a close look reveals that she is in the center of the protagonist of the book, Sita. The focus is not on her life it becomes clear when the story proceeds.
The lead character is Sita, and the story revolves around her. She is born to a poor family in a village near Jhansi. Her mother died during the birth of her younger sister. Now the girls are on the shoulders of grandmother. Well, a twist pours in unexpectedly when she plans to sell Sita to a temple as Devadasi because she is of the opinion that she (the family) will never have enough dowry and money arranged to get both the girls married into decent families.
Sita’s father is a soldier. He lost his hearing capacity and thus resolves to train Sita to be able to get through the Durga Sena selection over the grandmother's plans of selling her to a temple. He wants her to be a part of the elite women group that protects the queen Rani.
Rest of the narration is about her training, what happens at the royal court, glimpses of the royal life, the beginning of the 1857 sepoy mutiny and what happens to Jhansi. It is worth to note that Sita was introduced into reading by her father; there are references to classic books and authors like Shakespeare, Rumi, etc.
The writing style of the author was lucid and easy flowing, the story is fast-paced, the characters and their complexity are inspiring, and the realism in the story about history and historical characters is a thing to watch out for. The book covers a slew of emotions and touches the social aspects of life of that era. Marriage, dowry, sati, caste system, purdah system all have reference in the story and play a role in taking the story forward. Evidently research has been put into the story to connect the historical incidents to the various characters. The part of the British atrocities particularly stands out; the descriptions were so vivid that at times readers may feel that they are witnessing all this themselves.
Talking about pitfalls, the writer should have gone bit deeper into the Rani's character and that of her husband. Some characters could have been developed with sweeps and little bit family history, like the royal guard Arjun, the maid helper Avani at home, the Dalit Durga army warrior, the neighbor Shivani who trained Sita. They all play important roles in the story.
Those who love exploring history of India can definitely go ahead with this book. Note the book is not based on Rani Lakshmi Bai, but told through a character called Sita’s point of view.