I’ve always been a horror/fantasy novel fan, but since hitting my 20s, I’ve taken to reading historical fiction. I like history, but the way it’s presented is often bland, boring, blah. This is where novels like Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani, come in.
Set in 16th century Iran under the rule of Tahmasb Shah, the story kicks off with the Shah’s sudden death, without leaving an heir. The court is thrown into disarray, as each noble threw their support behind different princes to ascend the throne, and sought to wrest control for their respective clans. The situation might have spiralled into civil war if not for one Pari Khan Khanoom, favourite daughter of the late Shah and a smart and powerful leader in her own right. Pari harbours ambitions to rule, but as Iran is a patriarchal society and would never bow to a woman ruling openly, she puts her faith in banished half-brother, Ismail, who was sent away after being found to have been plotting against the Sultan.
Ismail turns out to be a bad choice. Once established as Shah, he refuses to listen to Pari even though it was she who made it possible for him to become Shah. Instead, he is afraid of her strong personality and wilfulness – made worse by Pari’s pride which refuses to let her bow down to his show of authority. Paranoid by his years of imprisonment, he goes on a merciless campaign to kill princes and nobles suspected of plotting to overthrow him. The nobles are at their wits end, but have no guts to end his tyranny
Life at court and Pari’s story is told through the eyes of Jahaver, a eunuch who entered the palace in order to find his father’s murderer. He becomes the princess’ right hand man; her eyes and ears both inside and outside the palace, and worships and adores his mistress as a loyal servant would. Together, they navigate a dangerous and delicate court, where one wrong misstep might mean death.
The reader is also taken through Jahaver’s own life, his sacrifices, his desires and dreams. Despite being a eunuch, he has fallen in love with a lady of the court, Khadijeh. He worries about his sister being married away by relatives before he can bring her to court, he is afraid but ready to lay his life down for his mistress’ plans (even dressing up as a woman for espionage!), all whilst trying to investigate the murder of his father.
Jahaver’s story is interesting, and his part vital in the grand scale of things, but the real heroine of the story is Pari. The author’s excellent use of first person narration and using a servant to tell the story creates the effect of a character that is aloof but endearing, as befitting a royal princess. We know she is smart, wily and ambitious, but we also catch glimpses of her tender moments and desires (it is implied that the princess has a relationship with her maid).
While Jahaver is a fictional character, many of the characters in the book, such as Pari and Ismail are actual historical figures. The book is a good introduction into 16th century Iranian politics, history, culture and arts. The descriptions of the settings, such as the royal palace and chambers, are beautiful.
There is a good combination of suspense and drama, peppered with elements that have always intrigued commoners about ancient court life: murder, deception, power and love. Good read.