Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Beneath a Marble Sky" by John Shors

I read this one as a teen, because I wanted to learn more about the Taj Mahal and the people behind it. Although this is historical fiction, it gives you a feel for Indian culture, which, being a relatively sheltered teenager in Montana, I didn't get to hear much of outside a social studies class. This was one of the first adult books I picked up at the thrift shop, due to its glamorous cover.

Despite its onion domes, I had always thought the Taj Mahal had been an artifact of the Hindu faith (yes, I was once culturally and architecturally ignorant). And naturally, with the sari-esque clothing featured on the cover and the country in question (Hindustan), I had assumed the faith depicted in this book would be Hinduism. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the mix of both Muslim and Hindu faiths represented. That said, much of this book focuses more on the culture and opulence of Hindustan in the 17th century, with only tidbits of religion.

The Plot:
Princess Jahanara lives in the gilded cage of her father's harem, only seeing brief glimpses of the outside world when her mother takes her to see her father keeping court, or when accompanied by her brothers. Her brother, Aurangzeb is her most frequent tormentor, and she fears that he may someday try to overthrow her father's favorite, Dara, to acquire the throne. But with an upcoming marriage binding her to a stranger, will she be able to have her say in her country's fate?

An interesting aspect of this book is the way the story is presented. The author switches between the present time with an elderly Jahanara telling the tale to her granddaughters, and the story itself. By doing this, the reader gains an epilogue of sorts, where you can see that Jahanara survives to tell the tale and had children, but the mystery remains until later of who their grandfather might be, and what has caused her to go into hiding.

This book is more of the historical fiction genre than the romance one, as it features realistic occurrences, like Jahanara's marriage to a man twice her age, who she has no love for. Although she is relatively pampered in her father's household, in her husband's things aren't so rosy, and her only value is for ornamental purposes or for bearing children. As she was taught to think freely, this naturally becomes hard for her to bear, and her position as a Princess isn't as enviable. The reader is shown the contrast between Jahanara's life and that of her Hindu servant (and friend) Ladli, who decides to love more freely, and it becomes clear that women with higher rank often suffer for it.

Beneath a Marble Sky is one of the better historical fictions I've read, as the author effortlessly transported me to an exotic realm of grandeur, tragedy, and romance. Although this book is fiction, the details are fairly true to the era: loveless arranged marriages, people proposing to kill a man who stole a sack of rice, as well as political posturing and intrigue. I would recommend this book to people who want to feel like they're travelling back in time to 17th century India, without the need for a time machine.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars for two enthralling love stories behind one of the world's greatest monuments.

Content: Polygamy, marital rape (not too graphic), and minor violence. Better read when ages 18+.

Page Count: 344 pages

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