I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
In 1600s India, Moorti has some contentious beliefs, starting with how she doesn't think she should be burned on the pyre with her husband. Job Charnock, an Englishman with the East India Company, steps in to rescue her and changes the course of Moorti's life. Given a new name, Maria, she sees it as a rebirth and works to better her life and protect her homeland and people. It's a tumultuous time but Maria's inner strength will build bridges, create a family, and found a city.
Goddess of Fire is a fictional account of real life characters and events. Job Charnock was a real historical figure who worked for the East India Company and is thought to have founded Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). He was also married to a Hindu widow, who he allegedly saved from a funeral pyre and renamed Maria. The story's foundation is these truths but changes the known narrative and instead is told from Maria's point of view, a view unknown by history. The author's artistic license takes the reader on a journey of racism, classism, redemption, and humanity at its best and worst.
"The day after my husband died, my brother-in-law and his son came to my door. They dodged the copper bowl I had thrown at them and dragged me by the wrists to the funeral pyre."
We are introduced to our heroine when she is only 17 yrs old; she hasn't left her village and as a consequence is very naïve about people and the world in general. When Job, her rescuer, renames her Maria, it is obvious she has some misgivings about losing her identity, especially with Anglicizing her name but goes along with it as she sees it as a chance to better herself; a theme that continues throughout the book. There is always a drive and desire in Maria but as she gains age and experience, she starts to push more and take her feelings about right and wrong more seriously. It's a humbling look at the innocence and excitement of youth and the greed and cynicism of the real world mashed together. The author uses Maria's inexperience to get explanations from secondary characters that really are cleverly described to help the reader but it also clogged the story at times, as focusing closer on characters would have been more intimate but you do get a broader, expansive look at 1600s India.
"They get so much from here, but they treat us like…"
Job Charnook or as he is referred to mostly in the story, Job Shaib, is for the most part a non-entity, until the last 30%, in the story. Maria's feelings for him are clearly hero worship and they have very few and very far in-between interactions, their relationship doesn't truly get going until around the 60% mark. This story is about Maria growing up, navigating the world, and trying to create a harmonious relationship between the East India Company and her people. Maria forms close relationships with the male kitchen crew she works with and a fellow servant Teema. Through these interactions we witness her optimism with working with the English and how the other characters with their life experience try to warn her about how the English really view them. Job rescued her and embraces some of her culture but towards the end of the story, Maria begins to see that some of her hero worship is misplaced, life experience.
"I wanted to shout out about the injustice, but a woman wasn't allowed to express her feelings publicly."
The writing is lush with its description of India's landscape, people, and culture but also slips into unnecessary recitation at times that slowed the pace down. Most of the story's pace was moderate as we follow Maria through her everyday struggles but the last 30% of the story moved at an incredibly quick speed, skipping months and years; it left the story feeling unbalanced. From the title, to the cover, and the way the reader follows Maria, I thought and for the most part, this felt and was a capable narrative on a woman's struggle, survival, and journey to the top. It starts with Moorti rejecting the custom of widows burning with their husbands and ends with Maria becoming second in command for the East India Company in Calcutta. However, when Maria goes back to her village to visit her family she finds her mother and father dead and her brothers kidnapped and sold into virtual slavery (we later learn their horrific fate), due to reasons associated with her rejecting the pyre. All of her family's misfortune seems to be linked to her rejecting the "natural" order of things and sends a very mixed message, whether this was intended or not, and one I wasn't comfortable with.
Overall, this story definitely had its compelling moments and even though there is only a sprinkling of true historical accounts throughout, more stories from women's point of views and cultures outside of western need to be told more often. Seeing the first spark of Maria's inner fire and watching her finally be able to set it ablaze was an engaging journey.