I received a free copy of this book from the author. My opinion is my own.
TW: Male rape
Chanta Rand's West African historical romance Rise of a Queen was intense. It began with a male rape, and included a lot of treachery, death and destruction, reminiscent of old school romance sagas. While that wasn't necessarily to my tastes, it was also intertwined with fascinating characterisation and a wonderfully detailed setting, both of which I really enjoyed.
The book opens with the heroine, Nabeela, being married to a prince much older than her in order to ensure her family's security. However, the overweight prince has a heart attack on their wedding night, and so she, her mother and their confidantes have to find another man to consummate the marriage and - hopefully - provide Nabeela with an heir, or the whole thing will be for nought.
A year or so later, Rafan - of the rival Sahaja people - is sent on a diplomatic mission to form an alliance between Rafan's cousin, a Sahaja king, and the de facto ruler of Nabeela's kingdom, her power-hungry former stepson. Rafan recognises the woman who held him captive and "stole his seed", and everything begins to unravel as Rafan upsets the delicate balance of power between Nabeela and her stepson.
As I said, the plot itself is a bit old school. There's a long set up with many separate conflicts and then the denouement comes very suddenly, and then is resolved quite quickly. I would have liked to see this more fleshed out. For example, it's never mentioned why Rafan turned around from the mission he is sent on, or the hows and whys behind the revelation of a plot against Nabeela. (I am being purposely vague here because I did enjoy this book enough that I don't want to spoil it for others).
I found Nabeela to be a very well-executed heroine. Circumstance - and her mother - have taught her that power is the only security a woman can have, and this defines her actions. However, Rand does very well at highlighting that desire for power and position is not a result of naked ambition, self-absorption or callousness - although other characters see it this way - but of the turbulent socio-political context.
In of itself, I think I probably would have only given the story 3 stars, but the way the author handled the setting bumps it up another .5 stars. Rand wove her research about the Empire of Ghana into the story so skillfully, without ever info-dumping. There was also a wonderful Author's Note at the end, which laid out everything that I had on my 'to Google' list in just the right amount of detail, complete with maps and pictures.
It is thanks to that I realised that the Empire of Ghana is in no way geographically commensurate with the modern nation-state of Ghana, but was instead located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, western Mali and eastern Senegal.
This was a good thing to know since I, you know, picked The Rise of a Queen as a Beyond a Single Story read for Ghana. So that's a valuable lesson for me. Don't rely on nomenclature and slack off on your research when picking books from countries where your knowledge is sadly lacking. If anyone knows of any historical romances set in modern-day Ghana or, before that, in the colony of the Gold Coast, I'd be grateful if you let me know.
In the meanwhile, I'm leaving Rise of a Queen under Ghana on the Beyond a Single Story page, because I think it points out the exact reason I started doing this back in January (and how little progress I've made). However, in doing so, I don't intend to imply that there is a common or interchangeable culture between the current Ghana and the other West African countries that once made up the ancient Ghana Empire.