Genres: Romance, Historical
A dead husband. An unconsummated marriage. She needs an heir. Any man will do.
1061 AD. A sprawling empire rich in gold, resources, and military might dominates West Africa. It’s The Kingdom of Ghana, and it’s at the height of its power.
Twenty-year old Nabeela is grappling with her own power struggle. In order to save her younger sister from their step-brother’s clutches, Nabeela agrees to marry a repulsive African prince and bear him an heir. However, her plans are waylaid when tragedy strikes on her wedding night—her new husband dies—without consummating their marriage.
She must find a replacement to impregnate her immediately. Any man will do—including a drunken soldier her servants find naked taking a bath in a neighboring village. Nabeela holds him captive and coerces him into having sex with her—stealing the one thing he can never get back—his seed.
What she doesn’t know is the soldier is Rafan, Commander of a warring tribe’s royal army, and one of her family’s arch enemies. Eager for revenge, Rafan tracks her down once he’s released. But when these two reunite, they realize their lust for each other is far greater than their disdain.
Enamored by Nabeela’s beauty and bravery, Rafan makes her an offer of marriage, and the promise to help her become queen. He convinces her that they are stronger allies than enemies. Even though they share a commitment to unite, there are others who are determined to destroy them and their plans, including the one person Nabeela would have never suspected. In the end, she’s is forced to choose between her passion and her ambition.
One of the great powers of literature is the limitless potential to explore millennia of history and fill in the gaps left ignored or smudged away by scholars and politics. This can be of particular importance when interrogating the overwhelming whiteness of it all, and the ways in which key figures and events have been overlooked (this also applies to the various intersections of race, gender, sexuality, geography, etc). Authors such as Sarah Waters have been pioneering figures in advancing historiographic metafiction, allowing an alternative narrative to Victorian Britain that fits comfortably alongside the more well-known parts while amplifying the voices that were always there yet either never given a chance to speak or had their voices outright pushed aside.
Romance has been continuing this pattern for many years now, emphasizing the stories of women in historical settings and giving eager readers a less misery-driven alternative to seemingly inevitable death and pain. Notable writers such as Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins and Jeannie Lin have crafted intricate historicals populated with more inclusive ensembles, helping to correct the oft-repeated falsehoods that people of colour in period settings is “historically inaccurate”.
Chanta Rand’s novel Rise of a Queen fits comfortably into this category, with a setting almost untouched by the genre that explores familiar themes of romance in an entertaining, if disjointed manner. Set in the Kingdom of Ghana in 1061 AD, Nabeela, with the weight of familial responsibility on her shoulders, marries a much older prince to secure her place in the power struggle of the nation. Providing an heir will ensure her family’s safety as well as her own. Unfortunately, her husband dies on their wedding night, so her mother hatches a plan to find another man to fulfil the duty, whether he wants to or not. Step forward Rafan, commander of another tribe with whom Nabeela has had a tragic encounter with previously. One night turns into an entangled battle of power and politics as Rafan promises he can make Nabeela a queen for the ages.
While there is much to recommend in the novel, I can’t move forward without discussing the rape. Nabeela has Rafan tied to a chair and forces herself on him in order to get pregnant. It’s not intended to be a romantic scene – although Rafan is enticed by her beauty and does enjoy it despite himself – but I know many romance readers see such scenes as an understandably no-go area. While I enjoyed the book overall, it’d be a lie for me to claim the scene didn’t in some way detract from my enjoyment of the story.
As the story progresses, the adept research shines through, as does the chemistry between the protagonists; torn between lust, distrust and duty, Nabeela and Rafan make precarious compromises and shaky truces to remain power players in the struggle for the crown. The novel is at its strongest when exploring this dynamic and how it effects their relationship, particularly as they have a child together borne from terrible circumstances. Alpha loving romance readers will latch onto Rafan, with his internal conflicts, family duties and tragic past.
It’s a real shame that shoddy editing got in the way of what was often a fast paced and intriguing read. There are numerous spelling mistakes, missing words and punctuation errors. Another round with the editor would have done this book wonders, and it feels unfair to the work to see it in this state when there’s so much potential glimmering on the surface. Rise of a Queen has much to offer, and many elements to recommend thanks to its strong central focus and fascinatingly explored setting, but the sums of its parts don’t quite add up and the cavalier approach to editing lets down the story. Still, I can’t not get excited about the new territory the romance genre is entering into, and I hope Rand continues to give this voice some much needed amplification, albeit with a cleaner script.