Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden is a fantasy novel set in a Mughal Empire-inspired landscape featuring a trans courtesan who gave up her royal title for the chance to finally live her truth.
Certainly one of the few of its kind, Stealing Thunder is notable as an epic fantasy featuring multiple transwomen written by a transwoman. Still, there has been controversy surrounding a white author using another culture as the backdrop for her story. As I don’t have the experience required to meaningfully continue that important conversation, I’m not going to be discussing that in my review.
When Razia Khan left the Nizam Empire to become a hijra in Bikampur, she lost her status but gained a family. Entertaining patrons by day and stealing their wares by night, Razia fills the coffers of her dera alongside her best friend, Sakshi, and her beloved “little sister,” Lakshmi.
After a chance meeting that turned into so much more with the Prince of Bikampur, the life that Razia had lead till that point changes drastically. Arjun draws her back into a life of royalty and lavishness, as well as politics, while Varsha, the guru who raised her, asks her to take bigger and bigger risks with her thefts. Both threaten to destroy the precarious life she’s fought for, as exposure of her identity and whereabouts ensure death at the hands of her father’s assassins.
Razia is an interesting lead character. While she was raised in luxury, she doesn’t balk at doing housework with her dera. She’s confident in her work as a hijra and a thief, which lends to her charisma. She’s also relatively secure in her identity and patiently explains her existence to anyone who questions it (which must be as much of a feat to do as it is to read). However, she’s also a bit too good at, well, everything. Anyone in search of a flawed, realistic protagonist should head elsewhere, but if you’re able to suspend reality for a couple hundred pages (there are dragons after all), her extraordinariness is admirable. After all, she worked hard to get where she was.
The one thing Razia continually fails at is refraining from putting her foot in her mouth. I can’t count how many times she made a situation more dangerous because of careless words. This was annoying, not because I want a flawless charcter, but because it lessens the seriousness of her situtation when her life is in danger but she so easily lets herself slip.
Her status as a hijra, though understood to the majority of society, results in disgust from many of those around her. She is forced to explain herself over and over again, constantly being dead-named and referred to in the masculine. This was exhausting, both as a reader and human being. While I imagine it to be accurate to the experience of most if not all trans people, the repetitiveness of bringing up her background over and over again got in the way of the fantasy, and definitely slowed down the first part of the novel. On that note, the fantasy aspect of the book seemed to be relegated to the dragons, which was the only part of the world that fell short in my eyes. I definitely expected more magic, to say the least.
Arjun, on the other hand, is basically a mannequin. He’s just so… bland. His attributes seem to be that he’s handsome and strong and kind (as we’re told, though it seems more like common decency) and that’s that. I can’t find a unique, off-color thing about him, which might be why their relationship bored me so much.
I imagine one of the biggest reasons I had a hard time getting through Stealing Thunder was the treatment of a man, who the story implies assaulted Razia when she was 11. He’s just… there. And sure, she hates him, but he sort of gets redeemed at the end? It’s bizarre, and I hope I misunderstood the situation somehow, but I’m not sure I did. Besides that, the consistent perfection in both some of the characters and the results of their actions was bothersome.
What I liked most about the novel was the setting. The descriptions and jargon used are very immersive, and from a quick google search, seem to be based in fact. The hijra, for example, are a real community, and aspects of their culture such as the distinctive single clap seem to be used in the correct manner. The prose itself wasn’t special, and some of the dialogue stilted, but the way the author built the world around the characters overshadowed it.
Stealing Thunder, while falling short in some areas, is a vividly imagined tale from a much-needed perspective. Though mired in controversy, and possibly rightly so, it remains up to the reader to determine whether that ire is deserved.