San Francisco Chronicle
Equal of the Sun, the second novel by San Francisco writer Anita Amirrezvani, takes us into a harem of 16th century Iran, ridding us of misconceptions that it was solely a place of uneducated, preening, cloistered women.
Princess Pari, favorite daughter and confidante of recently deceased Shah Tahmasp, hopes to re-create “the glorious age that produced so many great poets and thinkers: Hafez and Rumi, Avicenna and Khayyam,” which is what most Iranians today still wish for. Her partner in crime—for it is a crime to question the wishes of her father’s mentally ill heir, Shah Ismail—is Javaher: servant, intelligence gatherer, adviser, protector and friend.
Equal of the Sun may remind you of Mary Renault’s stunning 1972 novel, The Persian Boy, narrated by Bagoas, the eunuch favorite of Alexander the Great. Though Amirrezvani’s narrator, Javaher, is an invention and not homosexual, his unique access to power and his unidealized, yet constant, love for a royal are what drive this story.
Javaher is also a gelding by choice—a compelling side story that allows us to understand the psychological and sociological aspects of the period, including the anatomical particulars of castration, which Amirrezvani takes on in unflinching detail (much like Lisa See did with the topic of Chinese foot-binding in the novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) and of sex, which she describes as uniquely here as she did in her previous novel, The Blood of Flowers.
Many of literature’s best narrators have been servants. We’re drawn to them, not only because they’re privy to the secrets and quotidian habits of the powerful, but because they sometimes become active participants in events that will forever be shrouded in mystery. Princess Pari, a mere footnote in historical accounts because she was an unmarried woman with no children, is made significant to the history of the Safavi Dynasty through this fictive, yet highly probable, account.
No dynastic depiction can avoid the issues of patriarchy and the divine right of kings. Boys and men are raised with a level of entitlement that turns them into paranoid narcissists who rule ruthlessly in the name of God. Girls and women dare not voice their opinions and thus must seek underhanded ways to affect the system. The scheming and parricide rival A Game of Thrones.
What is so special about Amirrezvani’s treatment of historical material here is its examination of the timeless issue of gender identification. Her two main characters—Princess Pari, who has “been given all the tools of a ruler—except the blind, blunt instrument that seems to matter—but none of the opportunities,” and the eunuch Javaher, who has a capacity for manly feelings despite his lack of “parts”—lead us to question the very meanings of gender and the ways in which society’s rules and perceptions about it still constrain us.
It may make the reader suddenly wonder who they might be as a person if they were genderless. As Javaher says of Pari: “I don’t have royal blood, but we two could have been twins. It was as if we swam in the same fluids in our mother’s womb, so that some of my maleness became hers and some of her femaleness mine. That made us strange in the eyes of the world, which does not care for in-between things.”
Equal of the Sun is a fine historical novel filled with period details—fashion, art, architecture, poetry, cuisine, customs—subtly woven through a story of intrigue and action. Amirrezvani’s cast of characters is long, and you might need to consult a list of them more often than you would like at first, but it’s worth it to persevere. Some readers might find her use of flowery language a distraction, but the truth is, some of these phrases—By my eyes, I would sacrifice to you!—are still used in common Farsi, and it would be remiss of her to exclude or substitute them with modern ones. We certainly don’t imagine a Shakespearean character bidding us adieu with a contemporary “Later, dude.”
Read the review at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Iranians love to revel in their history. Tales of the Persian empire—its glorious conquests! its noble heroes! its brilliant dynasties!—are never too far from the lips of modern-day Iranians, especially those who aren’t too thrilled with the way things are going now for their country.
Writer Anita Amirrezvani has managed to carve out a niche for herself in the world of fiction thanks to that gilded heritage, much the same way Philippa Gregory and others have mined English history for their novels.
Amirrezvani’s new book, Equal of the Sun, takes place in 16th-century Iran, and is told through the eyes of a eunuch who serves one of the most famous women of that era, Princess Pari Khan Khanum. Since a royal court is involved, court intrigue must follow, and it does.
Pari’s father, the shah, dies, and a power struggle erupts over who is to succeed him. Because Pari is a woman, she cannot technically take the throne. But as many an Iranian woman will posit, Iranian men are fools if they think they are actually in charge of anything.
It doesn’t help that the man Pari decides to back for the throne turns out to be paranoid, murderous and dismissive of her many talents. It also doesn’t help that the princess herself is not immune to the pitfalls of power.
The more interesting character, however, is the eunuch who tells the story, and who has his own reasons for wanting to stay in Pari’s good graces. The eunuch is known as Javaher (jewel or treasure), and he voluntarily gave up his manhood to prove his loyalty to the shah after his father was executed for treason.
Javaher is convinced his father was an innocent man, and desperately wants to take revenge on those who plotted to bring him down.
Amirrezvani is a very capable writer, though this book is not as well-crafted as her previous novel, The Blood of Flowers, another work of Iranian historical fiction. The inclusion of common Iranian expressions—
“May your hands never ache!”—is a nice touch in some places, but at other times it is a bit distracting.
Overall, however, Equal of the Sun is a page turner, with plenty of gripping moments. Here’s hoping Amirrezvani will write many more tales illuminating the incredible history of the Iranians.
Read the review at the Washington Post.
Historical Novel Society
Amirrezvani’s novel of 16th-century Iranian court politics centers on Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, favored daughter of the Shah, and her quest for power. When her father dies, Pari sees herself as his heir in all but name—as a woman, she cannot inherit the throne, but she is the most intelligent and politically savvy of all of the Shah’s children. The sexes are segregated, so Pari’s servant Javaher, a eunuch, is one of the few men able to pass between the worlds of women and men. Pari comes to rely on Javaher as her spy and her confidant. When the cruelty of the Shah’s heir is revealed, Pari conspires to assassinate him—a move that, done well, would place someone friendlier to Pari’s cause on the throne. Though Pari and Javaher are successful, the new Shah is not friendly to Pari, and she finds herself fearing for her life.
As she did in her first novel, The Blood of Flowers, Amirrezvani illuminates the inner lives of women in a society where their roles are highly restricted. Had she been born a man, Pari could have been one of the great shahs of Iran, but as a woman, she was relegated to “power behind the throne” roles. Equal of the Sun is a fine political novel, full of rich detail and intrigue, but it’s also a thought-provoking study of the intersection between gender and power.
See the review at the Historical Novel Society website.
Equal of the Sun
Amirrezvani’s lush and tautly suspenseful followup to The Blood of Flowers (2007) is set in a treacherous sixteenth-century court. Her splendid heroine is ambitious, proud, and refuses to marry. A canny strategist dedicated to her country’s preservation, she is too confident of her abilities to let an incompetent man rule. Unlike the faraway queen of a “less important Christian kingdom,” however, Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, favorite daughter of Iran’s late shah, can never claim the throne and must conceal herself behind a velvet curtain while advising the nobility. When the half-brother whose reign she initially supports turns into a paranoid tyrant, Pari takes matters into her own hands. Javaher, a eunuch who knows harem affairs and male politics equally well, becomes her loyal advisor while seeking his father’s killer. The cast is large, the surroundings elaborate and colorful as this unlikely pair forms a strong alliance amid the intense and often shocking drama. Historical novels can serve to highlight the accomplishments of overlooked historical women, and Pari is a most deserving subject.
San Jose Mercury News
Equal of the Sun, by Anita Amirrezvani (Scribner, $26, 448 pages). Amirrezvani’s latest novel is a rare find—a gripping page-turner based on 16th-century Iranian history. It tells the story of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, the shah’s daughter and close adviser. Pari enjoys a peaceful, prosperous life until the shah dies without naming an heir; suddenly, she finds herself caught between warring factions vying for the throne. Amirrezvani, a former staff writer for this newspaper, wrote eloquently of Iran in her first novel, The Blood of Flowers. With Equal of the Sun, she creates a vibrant portrait of a country in the throes of change, with an extraordinary woman at its center.
Read the review at the San Jose Mercury News.
SF State Magazine
Behind Palace Walls
A tale of loyalty, love and power in the royal court of 16th-century Iran
IRAN,1576. The shah has just died under mysterious circumstances, and there is no apparent heir. Pari Kahn Khanoom, a powerful princess, takes charge until her brother journeys back to the kingdom and assumes the throne; but when he returns, he is not the generous and jovial brother Pari remembers. Soon she falls into disfavor in the royal court, and when the new shah begins ordering executions, danger.
In her second novel, Equal of the Sun (Scribner, ‘12), Anita Amirrezvani (M.F.A., ‘09) imagines the decisions that Pari, a real figure in the Safavi dynasty, might have made and the life she might have lived. Narrated by Javaher, her trusted servant, it is a story of power struggles, epic battles and steamy love affairs as well as a history lesson about the role of women in the ancient Muslim world.
Amirrezvani’s fans will feel silk carpets under foot, taste black tea and delight in the language of old Iran in this new tale, one every bit as intriguing as her internationally best-selling debut, The Blood of Flowers.
Pari Khan Khanoom was a 16th-century Iranian princess, the favored daughter of the long-reigning Tasmahb Shah. Brilliant, powerful and ambitious, she was a shrewd political player in a time and place where being a woman meant seclusion and disempowerment. Yet Pari Khan Khanoom hasn’t made many appearances in historical fiction, in spite of living a life ripe for it. In fact, unmarried and childless at the time of her brutal assassination at the age of 30, her name is unrecognizable to most anyone unfamiliar with Iranian history.
Anita Amirrezvani (The Blood of Flowers) tries to correct this injustice with Equal of the Sun, a novel that speculates on Pari’s brief but extraordinary life. Pari (“a princess by birth…fierce but splendid in her bearing; a master archer, an almsgiver of great generosity; a poet of uncommon grace, the most trusted advisor to a shah, and a leader of men”) was a major political force in the chaotic, bloody aftermath of her father’s death, and the novel follows her as she navigates—and manipulates—the explosive tensions and calamitous betrayals of the court.
Equal of the Sun isn’t just Pari’s story, however. It’s narrated by her closest servant and ally, a eunuch named Javaher whose (fictional) history rivals hers in drama and scope. As the two of them plot to restore peace and prosperity to the court, they develop an intense friendship—and that complex, powerful bond is just as fascinating as the politics that dictate it.
—Hannah Calkins, blogger at Unpunished Vice
See the review at Shelf Awareness.
BookDragon (Smithsonian Institute Asian Pacific American Center)
“Based on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom” seems to be the dominant short-hand description (even on its own back cover) of Anita Amirrezvani’s historical novel set in 16th-century Persia, now modern Iran. Some might find that description misleading, and expect this to be Princess Pari’s story, told in Pari’s voice. The narrative actually belongs to her chief eunuch and advisor, Javaher, who Amirrezvani reveals in the “Author’s Note” is one of several “invented characters.” Lest you feel deprived, don’t: Javaher makes for an excellent protagonist (especially as voiced by a perennial audible favorite, Simon Vance). He takes immediate control with the very first words—“I swear to you…”—as he declares his unwavering intention to “set down the truth about the princess.” He explains, “As Pari’s closest servant, I not only observed her actions but carried out her orders. I realized that upon my death, everything I know about her would disappear if I failed to document her story.”
Scant documentation survives about Princess Pari who was the favored daughter of Tahmasb Shah (1514–1576), the second ruler of the Safavi dynasty which reigned over one of the most significant Persian empires. In Sun, the few known major events of Pari’s royal existence are a vehicle for Javaher to share his enthralling, detail-laden experiences—and Amirrezvani makes exceptional use her fictional freedom—both inside the carefully-guarded harem and considerably beyond the palace gates.
Javaher joins Pari’s service, personally chosen by the revered, celebrated Shah. In order to prove his loyalty to the same royal court that accused and executed his father on distorted charges, Javaher has shockingly emasculated himself as a young man—much later than his fellow eunuchs who were made so in early boyhood. Javaher is determined to reclaim both his shattered family’s honor…and their former power. When the Shah dies unexpectedly without naming his chosen heir, Pari (and much of the court) knows that as his favored protegé, she is by far the best prepared, most knowing successor…if only she were not a woman. More and more, Pari’s brilliant, dangerous machinations rely on Javaher’s silence, his devotion, his intelligence, and his access to outside connections.
Because this is Javaher’s story, Sun moves beyond his royal service with intriguing subplots that include his personal quest to seek revenge on his father’s accuser, his determination to save his younger sister from their greed-driven aunt, and (with enough detail to make one blush at least a few shades of grey) his surprising romantic liaisons (birth control measures not required). Untethered by recorded facts, Amirrezvani’s fictional hero is a fascinating creation, fully aware of his Machiavellian choices, unbending in his determination to succeed: “If this book were discovered by the wrong man, I could be executed, for I have committed monstrous deeds and made mistakes that I would prefer not to reveal—although what man hasn’t?” he muses. “Man is flawed by his very nature. His ears hear only what they wish; God alone knows the absolute truth.” Amen to that.
See the review at BookDragon.