I’m not going to lie—the first few pages of Stealing Thunder were difficult to get through. The reader is introduced to a whole new vocabulary, that, if you’re not as familiar with Indian culture as the author, you’ll find yourself needing a dictionary to even get through it. Names blurred with nouns blurred with nicknames, and it was a struggle to keep characters distinct in my mind, even when there were only a handful. I had to reread sections in order to make sure I was understanding properly. It assumes a level of competence from the reader that at times can be unforgiving.
There was one word I was very familiar with, though: hijra. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that word, but it centered the story very quickly: this is the story of a trans woman.
The beginning may have been a little shaky, but by chapter two, I was sold. The main character, Razia Khan, delves into topics that we trans women have been struggling with our entire lives: The inability to live the life we’re told we’re supposed to live and how many of us reach a breaking point where it is impossible NOT to live as a woman. Razia is forced to abandon her former life, just as many trans women have to do in order to live their truth. The inability to talk about our childhoods, because either we lie and say we were little girls, or we mislead and misdirect and hope no one asks pointed questions. Learning these social skills are taught in Trans Women 101, a class we all take, whether or not we become courtesans like Razia. And then, the moment of panic when someone sees through who we are and realizes who we used to be, and the fear of what will happen when someone has that knowledge.
The prince reassures her that nothing will happen to her, and he will protect her—and I was crying by the end of chapter two.
You’re going to read this as a fantasy novel, but these are things I experience in the real world. There are daring heists and dragons and armies and sultans, sure, but the core of Razia’s experience—the disgust she faces from others, the sistership she forms with her fellow hijra, the fear she’ll never find love—these elements are not fantasy. These are the things trans women face every day. We deal with the frowns and stares of people who can’t tell which box we fit into. We share excited glances of recognition when we see another trans woman on the street. And on low days, we struggle to understand how anyone could love someone who has walked in two worlds like we have.
Stealing Thunder starts in the middle, and that caught me off guard. In a story with a trans protagonist, you expect to see their journey start in their former life, their struggle with their assigned gender, the breaking point, and then follow their changes to be the person they want to be. This book? Nope. That’s all long past. Razia has been living as herself for years already. This isn’t a book about “the struggles of a trans woman finding her identity”—this woman knows who she is, and she’s got more important shit to do. It’s refreshing. I am tired of that formula—I see it so often, it’s become rote. I want something new, and this book provides it.
The execution is not flawless. Some of the plot twists are easy to spot, and Razia can at times seem willfully ignorant. She’s often more worried about her past being discovered than the obvious consequences of her recent actions—that mob of people is angry because something valuable was stolen, not because her private and uneavesdroppable conversation was eavesdropped on. I won’t begrudge the woman her fear, because I’ve felt that fear too, but she can be more short-sighted than is characteristic for her. And some of her dialogue with other characters comes across as improbable, and only as a vehicle to deliver a particular punch line. It only happened once or twice, but it was enough to pull me out of an otherwise compelling and immersive story.
But the rest of the book is not improbable. Stealing Thunder executes a style of storytelling that I hold in very high regard: “it follows.” Razia steals a valuable object from a party the prince attends. It follows that he declares he’ll catch the thief to appease the host. It follows that when she must steal again, the prince tries to apprehend her. She escapes, of course, but it follows that she’s torn about hiding her secret life as a thief from the prince she’s falling in love with. Nearly everything fits together in a tightly woven, cause-and-effect sequence of events that I find both incredibly difficult to pull off and extremely rewarding when done well. Stealing Thunder does this exceptionally well. When the book moves on to the geopolitical scheming part of the narrative, the storytelling really starts to shine. Razia’s razor-sharp wit will have you shouting out loud in glee as she dances metaphorical circles around her adversaries. Watching her outmaneuver her over-confident and chauvinistic opponents with her exceptional tactical skill is both empowering and incredibly gratifying. She boxes her father, the sultan, into a corner with such mastery that even he is forced to concede.
Razia wins. She wins, and wins, and wins. The book moves at break-neck speed, and at every turn, she comes out on top. At every encounter, she outsmarts her opponents, and uses her wits to turn things in her favor. She wins back everything she lost, and then some. Do you know how rare that is for a trans woman? It doesn’t happen. We aren’t that lucky. We don’t get to live blessed lives like Razia. We have to fight, tooth and nail, for everything, and some of us will still lose.
And that’s why having stories with characters like Razia is so important. They give us hope. They give us someone we can pretend to be. When the government is stripping us of our rights and actively trying to harm us, these stories give us a place to escape to. They set the benchmark for what we should strive for—that the sky’s the limit, and that there’s a chance we will have our fairytale ending. They give us hope.
Despite its flaws, Stealing Thunder gave me something I’ve never had before: a protagonist that was like me. A protagonist that had the same worries and hopes, a protagonist that I could relate to on a deep and spiritual level. I’ve always identified with the girl in stories, even when I was a kid and everyone thought I was a boy. And as much as I envied the heroines of those stories, Razia gave me something else, something more, something closer to home: she gave me representation.
Randi Hagen is a proud trans woman, storyteller, geek, programmer, athlete, feminist, sister, mother, and Slytherin. She’s an avid fantasy/sci-fi reader and enjoys writing in her free time. Randi plays hockey with the Madison Gay Hockey Association and the Dread Pirates. She has completed two marathons and is training for an ultramarathon in the fall. Black Lives Matter.