When many people think of India, they think of the Taj Mahal. Most have vaguely heard of the story — how the magnificent white tomb was built by a grieving husband for his deceased wife. But how many have wondered beyond the building of the moment, and to the lives of those involved in the events that took place in 17th century India?
Beneath the Marble Sky is the fictionalized story of the life of Princess Jahanara, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife, Arjumand Banu Begum. Jahanara lives the privileged life as the favorite daughter of the Emperor, watching her parents rule India and spending time with her brothers. But after her mother dies, and her father begins a downward spiral of grief, Jahanara is forced to grow up quickly. She must help her father rule, and deal with increasingly dangerous power battles with her brother, Auragzeb. Auragzeb, a religious fanatic who twists the words of the Quran to support his cause, is determined to seize the throne, even if it means overthrowing his peace-seeking older brother. Jahanara must decide how to balance her love and duty to her family with her own safety and happiness.
I really enjoyed the romance in this story because it was not all-consuming. Jahanara and her partner are both deeply devoted to their work, and realize the importance of duty as well as their own personal happiness. I’ll admit that it’s a little too picture-perfect, especially for that time period, but I really fell in love with both characters and enjoyed watching them together.
Feminist Score: Good Effort
Beneath the Marble Sky takes place in 17th century India, where the role of women (even the imperial royal princess) was fairly limited. Jahanara navigates tricky political and social constructs to be an effective ruler in a male-ruled society. This story surely takes some liberties with the historical context, and the freedoms Jahanara is allowed, but it was well worth it.
Diversity Score: Good Effort
One of the best parts of Beneath the Marble Sky are the references to Islam. Through Jahanara’s eyes, we see both the peace and beauty of the religion, as well as as how power-seeking individuals will use “religious” justification to convince people to follow them. Every time Aurangzeb tries to use the Quran to justify violence, Jahanara counters him with other verses. Too many books focus on Islam as the justification for evil, rather than recognize that every written word can be twisted for political gain.
This has been one of my favorite historical fiction stories since high school. I’ve always been pulled in by the fast-moving plot, and the language is beautiful. I’m always (unfairly) a little wary of authors who write about an unfamiliar culture — e.g. a white man writing about a Muslim-Indian teenage princess. But John Shors writes respectfully and compassionately, and doesn’t try to generalize an entire society by one particular viewpoint.
Jahanara. She is determined to help her father and brothers, even at the expense of her own happiness.
“The Qur’an is a book of many faces. As much as Aurangzeb liked to quote its passages concerning revenge, misdeeds, and hellfire, it is also a text that speaks often of forgiveness, charity and goodwill. Unlike my brother, I always found these verses to be most profound. They comforted me tremendously.”
Is this worth a book hangover?
Yes, especially if you like historical fiction!
Fun Author Fact
According to his Twitter, John Shors plans literary tours to the settings of his novels. I would love to visit the Taj Mahal with him, and understand what drew him to write particular parts of the novel.
Read This Next
Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran. If you enjoy well-told historical fiction, Michelle Moran’s books are always great reads. While Cleopatra’s Daughter is my favorite, I’ve also enjoyed The Second Empress, the story of Napolean’s reluctant second wife.
Post Author: Anisha
Anisha loves books, Gilmore Girls, and her Kuerig. She’s been reading mainstream YA since she was actually a young adult, and Jess is helping her expand her horizons with more diverse, interesting books from newer authors.