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Equal of the Sun, by Anita Amirrezvani.

March 12, 2014

Equal of the Sun, by Anita Amirrezvani.  Scribner (2013),  Paperback, 464 pages.


A sweeping historical novel set in sixteenth-century Persia where the daughter of the Shah and the eunuch who serves her are caught in a struggle for power.

Anita Amirrezvani was born in Iran and grew up there and in the USA.  She is a careful student of the history of her home nation which she has fictionalized it in Equal to the Sun, an impressive story of political intrigue and personal loyalty.   In some ways her book follows the genre of big historical novels, but there are significant differences.  This is about Persia, a Muslim Shiite nation as turbulent and sophisticated in the 1500s as any in Europe.  Her leading character is the princess, Pari Khan Khanoom Safavi, educated and trained and eager to take her father’s place as Shah, but as a woman not allowed to do so.  In addition, the narrator of the novel is Javaher, the eunuch who is Pari’s chief assistant and spy.

The Persian court where the novel takes place is drawn with rich detail.  Food, clothing and palace traditions add to the feeling of time and place.  Descriptions of members of the royal family and public events were taken from the historical record; their servants and other characters were created by the author.  Lots of individuals move in and out of the action as Pari’s brothers compete and kill to become ruler after their father dies. Tension runs high.  I grateful to Amirrezvani for her list of characters to help me keep them all straight and for the summary of Persian history at the end of the book.

Little enough is known by most of us about the powerful women in western traditions, and Amirrezvani is committed to telling us about the forgotten women among Muslim ruling families.  Historically, Pari was a strong force in the struggles over who would rule the country.  She was the sibling who is best suited to rule, but as a woman she is feared and restricted.  Since little is known about her, the author had freedom to construct her character and actions.  Although her mother sought to arrange a suitable marriage for her, Pari chose one of the ladies of the court as her lover.  Impetuous and demanding, she did not always act wisely.

Javaher was the son of a man who had served as an accountant in the court and who had been executed.  Intent on finding who had caused his father’s death and taking revenge, Javaher had allowed himself to be “cut” so that he could serve in the palace.  Since he had already become sexually mature when he was made a eunuch, he retained some sexual responses.  Frankly, I wish that he had not told us quite so much about his remaining sexuality, but he is an intriguing character.  Although he is Pari’s servant, the two of them achieve an unusual, close partnership.  At one point, they refer to themselves as both being of a “third sex.”

I commend Amirrezvani for her detailed research and for her focus retrieving a strong woman from the past; a woman who defied the stereotypes of Muslim womanhood.  The book had more political infighting, sex, and violence than I like, but it is very well written.  I strongly recommend it to those who enjoy this type of historical fiction.

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