Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Historical Fiction: Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Publisher: Scribner
Date: June 5, 2012
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 425
Reading time: four days
*slight spoilers ahead*

From GoodReads: Iran in 1576 is a place of peace, wealth, and dazzling beauty. But when the Shah dies without having named an heir, the court is thrown into tumult. Princess Pari, the Shah’s daughter and closest advisor, knows more about the inner workings of the state than almost anyone, but the princess’s maneuvers to instill order after her father’s sudden death incite resentment and dissent. Pari and her trusted servant, a eunuch able to navigate the harem as well as the world beyond the palace walls, are in possession of an incredible tapestry of secrets and information that reveals a power struggle of epic proportions.

My review: It took me a little while to get engrossed in Equal of the Sun. Not being familiar with Persian court politics, etiquette, and intrigues, I found some of the interrelations between various nobility, other court members, and tribes to be a bit confusing. Especially at the beginning, the novel seemed a little underdeveloped, as if some details that would lend more development and cohesiveness to the story had been edited out, and the plot felt a bit rushed in places.

The book improved, though, the more I read. I enjoyed the last 2/3 or so much more than the beginning. The plot is an intriguing window into the struggles of the Safavi dynasty during the late 1570s, an era in which the court was fraught with espionage, assassinations, weak and/or possibly deranged rulers, and much political scheming. The narrator of the story, a eunuch under the employ of Princess Pari, is perfectly positioned to tell the story, as he has access to the harem, the city outside the palace, many of the rooms in which politics are conducted, and, of course, the fascinating character of Pari herself. One of the things I most liked about the novel was the nuanced depiction of Pari. Contrary to many heroines in historical novels, she generally fights against her suppressed position in a patriarchal society not through openly rebellious, gender-bending ways, but by elevating her freedom and position through the mechanisms already set in place. And at the same time that she is the strongest political force in the story, she is not perfect; her flaws are clear when her ambitions and opinions occasionally get in the way of what is perhaps best for her political and physical safety.

In some ways, I wish Equal of the Sun had ended about 100 pages sooner, when the story reached its highest point and a lot of loose ends were concluded at the end of the same chapter. Alas, history does not work the same way as novels, and so it's mostly downhill for the main characters for the rest of the book. There's closure at the very end, but only with heartbreak and tough compromises mixed in.

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