This was a free book from May’s Kindle’s First Reads picks. I’ll be honest, I picked this one because I thought it would be fraught with cultural appropriation and I thought I’d make a good time of it calling it out for that. Well, okay, also because I have an interest in seeing more fantasy stories set in Eastern settings, specifically in South Asian settings.
At the very beginning, the author makes it clear that she created a very fictional setting and she created her own mythology and borrowed heavily from Sumerian mythology. That was an interesting choice. The setting is very clearly Indian, based on the names, what they call their rulers (rajah, rani), what they wear (saris, predominantly), how they eat (sit on floor cushions, eat rice with their hands, etc.), and so on. However, Sumer was located in what is modern-day Iraq, so it’s clear that the author is trying to create her own thing and not trying to represent Indian mythology.
The names of the characters do sound Indian, but some are Hindu names, some are Muslim names, some are Sikh names, some are names I couldn’t place. Yet, in this story, the author draws no distinction between the types of names. All characters are followers of this Sumerian-derived faith. (However, I have to mention that the name of the empire is Tarachand, which sounds fine in English, but if you speak any South Asian language, it probably sounds funny to you as well. It would translate to something like “stars and moon”. XD )
Anyways, the author created a fictional setting drawing inspiration from Ancient Sumer but using South Asian names and customs, so basically borrowing elements from a bunch of different places. Which is perfectly fine in a Fantasy setting. And I see nothing that shows deep misunderstanding of South Asian culture, i.e. these characters don’t feel like western characters dressed up in an eastern setting.
I would tend to think that my verdict on appropriation is Not Guilty… in the sense that she’s not actually writing about Indian culture, but rather a made-up culture that borrows heavily from it. On the other hand, I did skim reviews and people seem to be thinking that this IS a representation of Indian culture…so that’s a problem. While the author does state “the Parijana faith and the Tarachand Empire do not directly represent any specific historical time period, creed, or union”, I think she should have done more to address the fact that she borrowed heavily from Indian culture but that her story is not a representation of it.
However, this twitter thread about this book has me thinking more about cultural appropriation. The complaint is about how the author represents Asian culture – here, Asian being the western part of the continent, roughly the Middle East and South Asia. That these cultures are represented as backwards and misogynistic and that they all had a gazillion wives. And that has me thinking…what if an Asian author wanted to write a Fantasy set in this region and draw from legends / folktales / fairy tales from the region? Should they just ignore the misogyny and the fact that the kings in these stories had a gazillion wives? When I was growing up, I actively boycotted Asian fairy tales for Western ones. I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time, I just didn’t like how women were portrayed. Whether I was reading 1001 Arabian Nights, or Hindu mythology, or Bengali fairy tales, I did not like the attitude towards the female characters. Take a look at this article about Indian mythology and rape culture, for instance.
The biggest problem with The Hundredth Queen probably comes down to the fact that the author is white, I suppose. There IS a context of white conquerors coming over to our ancestral homelands, claiming we were in need of civilizing and taking over our land. That is probably why we’re sensitive when a white author portrays us in a negative light, than if a brown author decided to take a critical look at the stories from her heritage.
But I do have a few things to say about the book itself apart from the appropriation thing.
I classified this as a dystopia. I’m actually not sure if Fantasy stories set in the past can classify as dystopia, but this book feels more like dystopia than fantasy, honestly. (It does have some strong Hunger Games vibes.) In essence it’s the story of a messed-up society that will need to go through a revolution over the course of the series. (At this point of the book, the “revolution” is already a-brewing.)
The author has created a world which takes its faith and mythology and superstitions very seriously (which was actually kind of refreshing). And from that mythology, comes this idea of warrior-women… women are trained to be warriors, and yet are severely subjugated. Let that incongruity/irony (however you want to view it) sink in for a second. You have powerful women trained in combat, who are actually powerless when it comes to their own choices, their own happiness, and certainly their independence.
The world is deeply steeped in misogyny; and it’s not subtle at all. There’s no way you will miss the status of women and they way they are treated. And also the fact that no one looks at the treatment and attitude towards women and thinks it must be changed. (The revolution I alluded to earlier has to do with other kinds of prejudices and persecution.) To the point that I’m not sure if the author is providing commentary on anything, or creating a world that entertains by pushing the limits of misogyny. (Yes, this can also be entertainment. If rape and murder can be leveraged for entertainment -looking at you ASOIAF – then so can extreme misogyny.)
And the last thing to comment on is the romance. It’s no spoiler to say that a major focus of the book is a forbidden romance between a girl who has no choice but to marry the rajah and somebody else who is not the rajah. As far as forbidden romances go, I guess it’s probably fine and checks all the boxes, but what stands out to me is that if there is any commentary in the book, it’s that Kalinda does realize that her society is such that she has no choice but to marry the rajah who has “claimed” her, and to join his harem of warrior-queens who undergo gladiator-like fighting tournaments to preserve their rank (!). That’s the key – she has no choice. But then she falls in love with the very first man she ever lays eyes on, the very first man she ever interacts with, and she even tries to investigate whether any other man inspires the physical attraction she feels towards this man, and it doesn’t. So, it turns out, she doesn’t have too much of a choice there either. She falls in love with whomever fate (or more likely, her hormones) dictates. (I’m not saying the forbidden romance itself is out of place here, but I do raise my eyebrows at the way it was framed.)
All of that said, it’s actually an entertaining read. Despite how ridiculous the set-up might seem from the way I described it, when you read it, if you can roll with it, it can be enjoyable.
Overall, it seems like a solid book. Nothing ground breaking. I wouldn’t recommend unless you specifically want to read Fantasy books set in South Asian-inspired settings. I will say though, it was fun analyzing the book.
Updated Thoughts (May 2018):
I think when I wrote this I didn’t have a proper understanding of what Cultural Appropriation means. Well, I guess I was viewing it the commonly viewed way: an inherently negative and disrespectful thing. At any rate, here is a good explainer of what the term actually means. (I started the video from the point where it talks about cultural appropriation, but I recommend the entire video!) So going by the definition there, yes, there is definitely cultural appropriation in The Hundredth Queen, but I don’t view it as disrespectful or harmful…the world-building was just kind of….idk unsophisticated?