Equal of the Sunby Anita AmirrezvaniScribner, 2012Although it was probably the last thing on author Anita Amirrezvani's mind when she was writing her extremely beguiling new historical novel Equal of the Sun, it's nevertheless probably good to remind Western readers (and label-loving Americans in particular) that civilization in Iran has a long, colorful, and often exquisitely refined history. Gorgeous artwork, unparalleled craftwork, powerful literature and some of the world's finest poetry - these form the backdrop of Amirrezvani's story, which is set in 16th Century Iran at the end of Tahmasb Shah's long and prosperous reign. The old shah dies without explicitly naming an heir, and although the complicated apparatus of the state shudders, it doesn't collapse - largely because the country's council of noblemen somewhat reluctantly concede the the shah's daughter Pari Khan Kanoom is as forceful and capable as any male member of the ruling Safavi family. Even in a rarefied world where Islamic law forbids the princess from leaving the imperial palace, there's no gainsaying Pari's encyclopedic knowledge not only of state history but also of practical, day-to-day governmental operations (the scenes where she simply dispatches business on behalf of her nominal masters are pricelessly done, as is so much of this novel).Even so, she needs eyes and ears outside the palace - an operative whose presence in bazaar and audience chamber will provoke no comment. Enter Jahaver, who passes her bizarre, pointed initial interview (during which, among other things, he's quizzed on his knowledge of the great poet Ferdowsi and his sprawling epic the Shahnameh) and begins to serve her - and to worship her. Jahaver is a eunuch (the account of his initiation into that troubled state are as graphic and gut-clenching as anything since Mary Renault's The Persian Boy) whose family was once noble. To save himself from the disgrace that suddenly overtook them, he made the ultimate sacrifice in hopes that it would demonstrate his loyalty; when he enters Pari's service, he's already been a courtier for years.He proves invaluable to this mistress (whose chief characteristics he lists as "obstinacy, arrogance, and fervor," although we readers are allowed to see quite a bit more of her human warmth than these imply), often tempering her impatience - and her impatience grows as her brothers and half-brothers consolidate their power and prepare to supplant her unofficial rule. "I have respect for sensible people" she barks out at one point, and it's clear she doesn't think much of how sensible her relatives (such as her brother Mohammad Khodabandeh and his odious wife Khary al-Nisa) are:
"If you insist on toying with matters of governance, you could lose not just the court but the country. Let me remind you of what we face. In the north, the east, and the southeast, the people have sickened of our rule and rebelled. In the northeast and northwest, we face invasions by the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. Our land is ringed with troubles. Our people are threatened with suffering. Remember, without justice there is no prosperity and no country. Take heed!"
Such outbursts endear her to precisely nobody, and whenever Jahaver advises compromise, he too gets an earful:
"I have come to despise that word. I am nearly thirty years old and have never been able to rule, even though I am more knowledgeable than most about Islamic law, the mathematical and physical sciences, the customs of the court, the rules of poetry, and the art of governing. Even my dear father, may God bless his soul, had eccentricities that led to poor decisions I had to accept. Now, at last, the noblemen have recognized that I have earned the right to rule, and I won't let Mohammad or his wife spoil my plans."
Of course, 'endearing to nobody' isn't entirely accurate: by Amirrezvani's obvious and welcome design, Pari increasingly endears herself to the reader. Despite Jahaver's first-person narration, Equal of the Sun is wholly Pari's book, and she's one of the season's most memorable fictional creations - sharply intelligent, unstintingly conscientious of good government, intolerant of cant and the fools who produce it, enthusiastically humanist. In short, our author has made her the embodiment of the other Iran, the one long-sufferingly enduring a fanatical religious junta, the one that reveres excellent food and college-educated daughters and overflowing home libraries - the Iran Christian Westerners almost never see and sometimes seem like they don't want to see. When Wasington, D.C. was still just a malarial swamp, that Iran was an old and multi-faceted society, and Anita Amirrezvani's novel opens a window on some of its rich and fascinating history (prettified and refined, of course - as novelists will do). The result is highly recommended for all fans of well-done historical fiction - and for any Beltway insider brave enough to read beyond labels.