Tag Archives: Loyalty

Book Review: Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors (3/5). A historical account of an Indian woman written by a white man. Wait, what?

11 Sep

I grabbed this one from the 2013 page-a-day book calendar that seems to have taken over half my TBR list. When I realized it was set in the 1500s, it jumped ahead to help me fill in my challenge list. Challenge accepted.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors

When the wife of the emperor dies, all of Hindustan is thrown into sorrow but none more than the emperor himself. To memorialize her, the emperor orders the Taj Mahal to be built. Its beauty will mirror that of a woman. And the only living woman who holds a candle to the late empress’ beauty is Jahanara, her daughter. Thus, Isa, the great architect, has Jahanara cast as his assistant and thus sparks the great love story.

As the towers grow higher, the emperor’s health is failing. It’s known that he favors his oldest son, Dara, the brains, and his younger son, Aurangzeb, who is a powerful soldier. Jahanara loves her older brother and wants him to succeed and sends her loyal spies into Aurangzeb’s trusted inner circle. The tale that unfolds is one of political positioning as well as star-crossed lovers.

This summary sounds a little more scripted than I think most of my others do, but this book is such a sweeping epic that it deserves a sweeping introduction. I liked this book, but I didn’t love any part of it. I liked the romance between Jahanara and Issa, but I thought it came on too fast. I loved Jahanara’s friends, but didn’t feel there was  enough back story to show why Ladli in particular was so loyal to her. I thought the paranoid older brother was great, but felt there were some flaws in his circle of trust. It was just a bit too inconsistent for me to love. That said, I really did enjoy this and I thought it was a great book to teach me about 1600s Hindustan. I never learned much about that region’s history in school so knew little going in. Shors didn’t hit you over the head with facts, so it was a very smooth learning experience.

I loved that the family dynamic was strained; that seemed very real to me. So often in books I’ve read, the children either band together against the parents of the children are all on their own or there’s one big happy family. But in this book, we have one estranged child who’s not the narrator. It was refreshing to say the least. The immediate family seemed well portrayed to me, thought I thought a little more back story was needed for Jahanara’s friend Ladli and her servant, Nizam. Their strong loyalties were commendable, but seemed loosely based and I wasn’t sure if Jahanara could really trust them a few times. They proved to be closer to her than her family, but I questioned why.

Nizam was my favorite character. He was strong and silent and steady. His back story as a slave made me feel sympathy for him and what he did to keep Jahanara safe when she went to find Isa was incredible. I thought his love with Ladli seemed really forced and it made me feel differently about his character. I’m not sure quite how to word it. I think Shors wanted my opinion of Nizam to change when the man became free. I think he wanted me to see him as more independent, but the frame of the story is Nizam rowing Jahanara and her granddaughters along the river to Agra. That seems a lot like servitude to me so I continued to think of Nizam as a servant.

I can’t say I really related to any of the characters. Their lives and problems were a representation of the time period they’re from and in modern America, we don’t have a much desert crossing or betraying princes as Jahanara had to deal with.

I was so happy when Jahanara’s daughter was born. I adored how she tricked her husband into thinking she was pregnant with his child and thought it was so great of her father to let Isa come see his newborn daughter. Her father protected her as much as he could and it was great to see how much he loved his daughter and granddaughter. I also liked that the daughter didn’t tell her husband that she was the niece of the emperor. Some family secrets are meant to be kept.

John Shors Image via Barnes & Noble website

John Shors
Image via Barnes & Noble website

I didn’t like the years that Jahanara and her father were imprisoned. I thought they flew by too quickly in the book, but at the same time I’m not sure how they could have been dragged out. Moreover, I didn’t like the idea of it. It reminded me a lot of the Philippa Gregory books I’ve read about people being locked in the Tower of London. It’s not a good thing to write about because it has no action to it and it’s not something most people want to think about.

Love and duty seem like the biggest themes of this book to me. Jahanara does a lot for love, including putting herself in danger for Dara and her father. The love in this book isn’t only romantic love. The love of family blurs with duty to one’s family as well. It would be easy for Jahanara to run away with Isa and forget about her father’s lands, but she feels committed to the people because she is the daughter of the emperor. The one duty that I would say Jahanara skirts is her arranged marriage. Her husband is so abusive and hurtful that she feels she no longer owes a duty to her father to respect him. While her father understands this and apologizes, she is still bound to her husband by duty.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book is a great example of how good research pays off. Like I said in my title, this book is written by an American man about an Indian woman in the 1600s. Being able to write from a different gender’s perspective is a gift (in my opinion) but being able to write about someone from a different culture in a different time is all about research. You have to know lifestyle, language, customs, technology, etc., a lot more than what a history book can tell you. Shors did his research and it paid off well.

Overall, the book had a very original plot and was well paced, but really failed to hold my attention for long periods of time. I found myself wanting a little more character development. Three out of Five stars.

This book fulfilled 1600-1699 for my When Are You Reading? Challenge and Foreign Country: India for Where Are You Reading?

Until next time, write on.

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