A fictional retelling of the rise to power of Nzinga, queen of the Ndonga tribe of Angola, examines her defiance of the Portuguese invaders who sought to enslave her people.
In 16th-century Angola, Portugal wages war with the Ndongo tribe, seeking fortune through the subjugation of its land and people. Upon capturing the mother, wife, and two sisters of the tribe’s ruler—the Ngola Kilijua, Mbande—the Portuguese face not a wrathful king but his half sister, the beautiful and shrewd Nzinga, sent to negotiate both her family’s release and a peace treaty. Favored in her youth by her father, the previous Ngola, Nzinga developed the keen, strategic mind of a leader through her endless curiosity and brazen eavesdropping despite being unable to ascend the throne as a woman. Freeing her family, she returns home a hero for her diplomatic maneuvering, making no concessions, and leaving only a spy network behind. When her brother dies under mysterious circumstances, it is not long before her growing popularity allows her to crown herself Ngola, defying gender norms as she leads her nation in staving off the advances of the more technologically advanced Portuguese, despite their horses, armor, and gun powder. Famously, when not offered a chair in the court of Luanda, Nzinga sat upon the backs of her own subjects, and Howard (A Teacher in West Africa, 2016, etc.) injects the novel with this same level of showmanship, from the re-creation of that scene to the bloody, vivid carnage of battle. Traveling poets and storytellers called griots impart to the younger Nzinga, as well as the reader, the history and nuanced beliefs of the Ndongo people, a culture that while at times cruel—Nzinga herself lost her own son to her brother’s fears of interrupting the line of succession—still inspires loyalty and instills the importance of such occasional brutalities to the ascending queen. Thoroughly researched, the book includes a useful list of characters, some of the author’s own notes on the text, as well as some further reference materials for those who wish to know more about this unapproachable queen.
Occasionally leans on royal spectacle, but this approach turns out to be quite fitting for such a lavish historical figure who ruled in Africa.