Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Iran is very definitely in the forefront of the American mind but as much as we don't necessarily understand the country today, we are almost totally ignorant of its long history. Those of us with an affinity for history might know some of the corresponding history of Europe in the sixteenth century but are unlikely to know anything about the turmoil of Iran at the same time. Anita Amirrezvani's historical novel Equal of the Sun, loosely based on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom takes that history and breathes life into it, allowing the reader into the political intrigue, the harem maneuvering, and the limits of life for even the most privileged of women of the time.

In the late 1500's the peaceful reign of the Safavi Shahs was in jeopardy when the current shah died without having named an heir. None of his sons were particularly appealing prospects to lead their country and the machinations following his death were numerous. Although not able to rule in her own right, the Shah's daughter Princess Pari is the most well-suited to lead the country, despite having been secluded in the harem her entire life. She advised her father on matters of policy and had a quick and agile mind. Because of her sex, though, she had to use others to help keep her informed about life outside the harem walls. Chief among these people is her eunuch and vizier, Javaher, a man with secrets and a hidden agenda of his own.

Told from Javaher's perspective as he does his mistress' bidding, the tale encompasses both Pari's bid for power, her unsuccessful run at maintaining her influence even as her brothers become, one after another, the de facto heads of government, and Javaher's quest to uncover the identity of the man who murdered his father, a quest that started for him at the age of 17 when he voluntarily became a eunuch. As a Muslim woman of the time, Pari is destined to remain behind the scenes politically despite her intelligence and uncanny understanding of politics. She is cunning and not above manipulation herself but she does not seem to be willing to concede that her very success at ruling and preserving the country for her chosen brother is what makes her most dangerous and only able to hide behind her sex for so long.

That the tale is told from the eunuch Javaher's perspective makes the tale of a woman behind the scenes directing her country and trying to seize the reins of destiny more intriguing since that allows the reader to see Pari's flaws more clearly than if she was presenting her own story. Javaher can see where Pari is pushing the bounds and yet he is as unmanned with her as she is with the reigning Shahs. The court intrigues are tangled together and leave the reader wondering where ultimate power will come to rest with so many people working at cross-purposes. Pari is a surprisingly modern character for the time period and yet she was ostensiby raised as such by an indulgent father who recognized and appreciated her genius. Javaher as a character is fascinating but his own quest is not as gripping as the power struggle choking Pari and the unmasking of his father's murderer is a bit anti-climactic amidst the rest. While the tale of a woman denied power may be a familiar one, this is well written, chock full of history not well known to Americans, and engrossing enough to make putting it down a real wrench.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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