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Merle

Merle

Equal of the Sun - Anita Amirrezvani I picked up this book after enjoying Amirrezvani’s first novel, The Blood of Flowers. This one turns from the lives of regular people to those of royalty, which tend to interest me less (weird, I know), but still proves to be a compelling read.

This is the story of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom Safavi, told through the eyes of Javaher, a eunuch in her service. Pari has long been an adviser to her father, the Shah, and when he dies, she’s neck-deep in intrigue: trying to put the brother she prefers on the throne, but more fundamentally, trying to rule Iran herself. Meanwhile, she and Javaher come to trust and respect one another, and Javaher searches for the man who murdered his father many years before. As a eunuch, Javaher has access to both the harem and the outside world, giving readers a full picture of the times.

I wasn’t sure about the characters at first, but Amirrezvani does a good job with the two principals. Books about female historical figures have a tendency both to whitewash them to the point of bland sainthood and to “feminize” them by focusing on their insecurities and their love lives, and I was glad to see nothing like that here. Pari is arrogant, ambitious, and focused; she seems entirely capable of running a government, but is also far from perfect. She’s a product of her culture but has learned to work around it, for instance, by holding political meetings from behind a lattice (so unrelated males won’t see her). Meanwhile, Javaher also turns out to be an interesting character; you don’t see many fictional eunuchs in lead roles, and his relationships with women are unusual and add an extra layer to the story.

It’s important to note, though, that ultimately these characters are courtiers/politicians, and that this book is as much about the politics as it is about the people. Many of the characters’ interactions are quite formal, and minor characters often remain enigmatic. This book does an excellent job with the drama of deadly court politics and with bringing its setting to life, and I’d expect those who love reading about royalty but are tired of England to gobble it up. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves the “historical” aspect of historical fiction or enjoys political intrigue. But I’m less certain about how well more literary-minded readers will like it; the characters can feel distant at times, and the writing style is adequate but falls short of elegant. Amirrezvani seems to be going for accessibility in Javaher’s voice and the dialogue, which ring a bit modern in style, but not anachronistically so.

Finally, a warning to readers: there’s a character list at the front of the book, but those sensitive to spoilers may prefer to avoid it, since it lists rulers and the dates of their reigns. All the names and affiliations can be a bit complicated at first, but I could generally follow events without reference to the list.

In the end, this is an enjoyable and interesting historical drama, covering a fascinating time period. I wish there was more historical fiction available in English about the Middle East and hope Amirrezvani continues to write books like this in the future!