Content Warning: Rape, Transgender Violence, Deadnaming
Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden is an is an upcoming high-fantasy novel published by Ace, an imprint of Berkley Books (Penguin Random House). Razia Khan was once the Crown Prince of Nizam, until she ran away to live her life truly, away from the scorn of her disapproving father. Life, though finally free to live honestly as a hijra in her guru Ammia’s dera, is not easy. Ammi is not always kind and she is very demanding of Razia, making her steal from the rich men she is hired to perform for and sleep with. Everything begins to change for Razia though when she meets Arjun Agnivansha, the Prince of Bikampur. She can see a future for the first time, but getting there will be harder than anything Ammi.
Boyden does well making the world feel alive. She uses many words and phrases native to the places the story draws its inspiration from, which can be a tad tough to follow at first. But, between the glossary in the back and the repeated use of many of these terms, it’s easy to catch on. The same is not true though for the names of places. They are not quite as fleshed out as unique places from one another. Amap, or even just a sense of geography and more distinction between places would help. There are certain details that are repeated ad nauseam throughout Stealing Thunder, spending more time detailing the peoples and places of the book’s world would have enriched it even further.
The premise of Stealing Thunder is awesome with a completely non-archetypical hero and the zahhaks, elemental dragons, the make the world unique. Additionally, it’s a clearly very personal story for the author, as she describes in a forward that this book is the story of a transgender princess she wishes she could have grown up with. In a lot of ways, Stealing Thunder does just that, but unfortunately, the book is also mired with troubling characterizations and plot for the first two-thirds.
A significant percentage of Razia’s personality and motivation for much of the book revolves around the secret fact she was once the Crown Prince of Nizam and the son of the most powerful man around. This fixation is reiterated over and over, especially as we see Razia interacting with Arjun and the other members of his father, Udai, the local maharaja’s court. Centering the plot on the fact that Razia was once a man only serves to define Razia by what she isn’t. The story would have felt more empowering the whole way through, not just in the final 40 pages, had it grappled with those intense fears while also showing who Razia is now.
Razia’s pain and trauma are well expressed by the narrator and her mantra that she was born with a woman’s soul and can help it no more than anybody else can is perfect. Unfortunately, any other development for her character besides pain and trauma are constantly overshadowed by other characters’ fixations on her past. The worst repeated instance of this problem is the overwhelming fixation on revealing her deadname.
Over at least 100 pages, more and more characters come along trying to force Razia to divulge what her name was in her former life. Refusing to call people by their chosen names and fixating on who they used to be can be supremely traumatizing. Having to read Razia go through that over and over was hard enough as it is. The fact that Arjun is the first culprit of this transgression is even more upsetting. Arjun essentially pressures Razia into a situation where he guesses and she is forced to confirm her deadname. Arjun is a wonderful person in literally every other way, which only makes this transgression more hurtful. By discovering who Razia used to be, Arjun begins their relationship with a dangerous and traumatic power imbalance.
Razia is also concerningly quick to forgive all of the men who treat her so terribly. Nobody ever shows real remorse for having misjudged or underestimated her. There’s no implication either that Razia makes her own choice to move on. One of these men raped Razia as a child and by the end of the book, she is counting him among her “friends” without him having ever apologized or reconciled. It’s all just swept under the rug like none of it ever happened. It makes it feel like Razia only gains respect because she was special all along.
Fortunately, the end is perfectly satisfying, despite everything it takes getting there. A result of her newfound external validation is that Razia does eventually get to be the fierce and independent person she always should have been. Gets to have the fairytale ending of living a new life free to be who she wants to be while still getting to keep nearly everything she lost after running away to become a hijra. Satisfying and cathartic the conclusion feels like it was torn straight out of the author’s still-beating, ever-dreaming heart and laid raw onto the page, which I’m totally here for.
Ultimately, Stealing Thunder is powerful but imperfect. But, so is any story and so is real life. So much of what this story does so well gets canceled out by aspects I could not get past. For all of the problems I have with it and the anguish it took to get through the first 200 pages, I finished the book longing for a sequel that takes all of what the book does well and runs with it now that the Boyden has this first fiction experience under her belt. Hopefully she picks up the pen again and continues to bring empowering stories of transgender princesses to people’s lives.
Stealing Thunder will be available May 12th wherever books are sold.
Stealing Thunder is powerful but imperfect. But, so is any story and so is real life. So much of what this story does so well gets canceled out by aspects I could not get past. For all of the problems I have with it and the anguish it took to get through the first 200 pages, I finished the book longing for a sequel that takes all of what the book does well and runs with it now that the Boyden has this first fiction experience under her belt. Hopefully she picks up the pen again and continues to try bringing empowering stories of transgender princesses to people’s lives.