Daughter of the Sky
As a reader always on the hunt for unusual settings and non-wallpaper history, Daughter of the Sky sounded like it could be quite a book.And at times, it was. After all, romance readers don’t often get a chance to find their way to South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War. The pacing had some issues and the story didn’t quite come to life as much as the very best books tend to do, but it’s still overall a unique and often engrossing story.
As the book opens, we see a young teenager, Elizabeth Jones, sailing en route to England. Her missionary parents have died in China and so she must return to her grandmother. However, the ship wrecks off the coast of South Africa and a Zulu boy rescues Elizabeth after spotting her in the waves. She is taken into the village to live among the Zulu people and because of her red hair, she is given a Zulu name meaning “Daughter of the Sky,” based upon a legend.
The main action in the story takes place several years later. Elizabeth has reached her early 20s and her world is on the edge of upheaval as the British prepare to invade Zululand. Throughout the story, we see tensions mounting on both sides as they prepare to fight. Elizabeth finds herself in the middle of the action as her looks make her the obvious member of the village to try to infiltrate the British camp and learn what they have in mind. Disguised as an enlisted soldier, she manages to get into the camp and finds herself tasked as Captain Jack Burdell’s valet.
At this point, there are so many ways in which this book could have gone wrong, and the author deserves a lot of credit for not falling into any of those traps. For starters, while there are some reprehensible things done in the name of empire in this story, Diener draws her Zulu and British characters in such a way that neither side is entirely good or entirely bad. Some of the British officers are horribly racist and see nothing wrong with treating the Zulu people like objects, but others, including the hero, question the system in place and see something more human and worthy of respect in their adversaries. A little nuance goes a long way.
Likewise, when I saw that this was going to be a story about a woman raised among the Zulu, I feared that the Zulu people might end up portrayed as “noble savages” or otherwise held up as some exotic Other. The author does make reference to elements of their culture which would have been very noticeable to any observer but she does it in such a way that it simply becomes part of the heroine’s daily life and a normal part of the scenery for her. In addition, while the story makes reference to historical accounts such as the famous one that the Zulu warriors believed the magic of their shamans would make them impervious to bullets, we also see some of Elizabeth’s adopted family and friends not accepting these notions blindly, and trying to learn more about the British and their ways.
And then there’s the cross-dressing. Yes, Elizabeth dresses up like a young private in the army and she does in fact manage to fool most of the people she must deceive. However, Jack Burdell catches her out early on – he just has his own reasons for not ratting her out. In a way, this made the romance flow more naturally because readers don’t have to wade through yet another, “Oh, I’m having feelings for my valet but I can’t since he’s a boy! Oh, he’s a woman in disguise – never mind then,” sort of plot. Since we don’t have to deal with that part of the charade, the story focuses more on Jack and Elizabeth’s interactions away from the eyes of the other soldiers – and we also get to spend much time flipping pages, anxiously waiting to see if Elizabeth will get caught spying.
In terms of the pacing, things start off well as the story follows the buildup to the Anglo-Zulu War and we get glimpses of both the British and Zulu camps preparing for the fight with ever-increasing tension. However, the author devotes perhaps a bit too much time and detail to the buildup and it eventually reaches a point where most readers will probably be wondering if we can’t just start the war already. In addition, once the battles do start and the story reaches its climax, things feel a little too rushed as we go careening toward the resolution. The romantic plot follows in this fashion, with the transition from lovers to deeper relationship feeling a little glossed over in the abrupt rush to the end of the story.
Even with the pacing going somewhat awry in the latter part of the book, Daughter of the Sky is an interesting read. The author draws heavily from primary sources of the time, so the background just shines. While the characters and their romance lack that unforgettable quality that I would demand from a DIK read, they are still likable and the story makes for an enjoyable read. And if you’re interested in some of the history behind the book’s setting, don’t miss the author’s notes at the end.