“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.