Daughter of the Sky by Michelle Diener
Author: Michelle Diener
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / South Africa / Zulus / Anglo-Zulu War / Cross-Dressing / British Army / Cross-Cultural / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Self published (2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: Loved, especially as it was gripping enough to get my mind off the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday.
Did I finish?: I read this in one day -- about six hours.
One-sentence summary: Englishwoman Elizabeth Jones was raised by South African Zulus after surviving a shipwreck, and when British troops threaten the Zulu, she infiltrates the army by disguising herself as a soldier.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: On one hand, I do -- very pretty! -- but on the other hand, I don't think it sets the novel up well. Young, long-haired white girl with indigenous weapon is hardly our heroine, who -- while young -- crops her hair and uses a rifle.
First line: Lindani didn't run from anything, even a monster in the sea.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- the ebook is $3.99 and wonderfully fun for those who like historical romances in a non-traditional setting.
Why did I get this book?: I'm rather obsessed with fiction set in Africa.
Review: I was a bit apprehensive when I got this book: with a white heroine proudly emblazoned on the cover and a premise set during the 19th century Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa, I was afraid it would be White Man's Burden meets The Power of One. (And I say this as someone who loves The Power of One, but let's be real, it's problematic.) Instead, this is a lovely historical romance with a bold heroine living in two worlds, belonging to neither, and a fascinating armchair escape to an era and locale rarely seen in historical fiction.
Set in 1878 in the eastern coastal region of what is now South Africa, the story follows Elizabeth Jones, a white Englishwoman who was washed up on the coast at fourteen when her ship wrecked. Taken in by the local Zulu tribe, she is raised alongside them, her rescuer Lindani virtually a brother to her. Now twenty, Elizabeth and her Zulu family watch in horror as the British army masses against them, clearly bent on war. At the behest of the Zulu king, Elizabeth crops her hair short and dons stolen British uniforms to infiltrate the army and report back to the Zulu what the British plan.
Through a tiny bit of helpful coincidence (which I forgive, because otherwise, things would have progressed way too slowly), Elizabeth ends up masquerading as a batman (a personal servant) to Captain Jack Burdell. Jack is a seasoned soldier and a gentleman farmer, recently disillusioned with army life, a sentiment that grows when he reads his father's journals and finds his father felt the same way.
Fairly quickly, Jack sees through Elizabeth's disguise, but buys her cover story, and the two fight off their sexual interest. Elizabeth, who witnessed the British Army at their worst as a child, finds herself softening toward the soldiers around her, less convinced she wants to be party to anyone's annihilation, Zulu or British. As the story marches (literally) toward battle, Elizabeth has to learn who to trust and what world she wants to live in -- and of course, what the cost of that choice will be.
While the romance is straight-forward, I so loved Diener's acknowledgment of the hypocrisy of the mores and values held by Victorian British. In one scene, when Jack learns Elizabeth dressed in traditional Zulu fashion -- that is, topless -- all her life, he is aghast. For a moment, his sexual desire for her dissipates as he makes the erroneous leap that she was ravaged by the Zulu. Her semi-nudity, he's convinced, was sexually explicit -- whereas the reality, as Elizabeth points out, is that no Zulu stared at her breasts the way Jack stared at them. The repressed Victorians are the savage ones here.
Diener's premise, while seemingly far-fetched, is based on some historical tidbits, including the real-life survival story of a ship-wrecked child adopted by locals as well as the fact that after the battle of Isandlwana, survivors were questioned as to whether they had seen a woman on the battlefield. (As Diener writes, why would anyone ask that question?, and I agree!) Every chapter opens with a historical quote from the Zulu or British from this time, prescient and heartbreaking, and there's a glossary of Zulu phrases as well as an extensive bibliography.
I raced through this book in a day, following the Boston Marathon bombings and it was just the read I needed. Easily losing myself in the story, it had a romance I was rooting for and a larger historical arc that was tense and fascinating. (Being unfamiliar with the Battle of Isandlwana, I raced to the end to see how it resolved.) Fans of unique historical settings will enjoy this, as well as anyone who hankers for a historical romance that is spicy, a little complicated, and very bittersweet.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer one ready a copy of Daughter of the Sky (paperback or eBook, winner's choice). To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 5/3. See my interview with Michelle Diener for another chance to enter!