Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Book Review: Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors

# Format: Paperback, pp. 368

# Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)

#Genre: Historical Fiction/Royalty

History has given us some extraordinary love stories: there's Anthony and Cleopatra, Victoria (Queen of England) and Albert, Abigail and John Adams and a favorite of the literary world, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. While all these stories are endearing and I will read them over and over again, my favorite is that of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. As a child, when we spoke of the Taj Mahal, our voices would drip with awe, not just because of the alluring splendor of the marble mausoleum but because the thought of a grieving king building this beautiful monument to his dead wife who was not royal (he met her in the marketplace where she was selling trinkets to passerbys) was at once so romantic and tragic.

So imagine my pleasure and delight when I came across a book that delves into the history of the Taj Mahal and the love story that sparked its creation. The book I refer to is "Beneath the Marble Sky" and its author John Shors was inspired to write it after a visit to the Taj Mahal in 1999.

The story is told by Jahanara, the Emperor's favorite daughter, (perhaps because she resembled Mumtaz Mahal the most). Jahanara's is a sweeping tale that takes us from the time she was a little child in the imperial harem located in the Red Fort, to the death of her mother (Mumtaz Mahal) at child birth, to the building of the Taj Mahal and her (Jahanara's) romance with the architect Isa, to the turbulent last days of Shah Jahan when he was usurped from his throne by his cruel, second-born son Aurangzeb and made to languish in a room where he could only see, never step into, his beloved Taj Mahal.

The author is a wonderfully descriptive writer and although he uses language and descriptions meant to evoke 17th century Mughal India, the lust and lavish period detail never overwhelms. He fills the pages with descriptions of opulent palaces, decadent harems, court intrigue, public beheadings and so on, but always at the heart of his novel is the simple, passionate human story of Shah Jahan, Jahanara and the people they loved.

In case you're wondering, there is no need to know anything about Indian history before you read this novel, but I will admit that it was a wonderful experience to see figures from my school history books, like the fiercely Muslim Aurangzeb, the chivalrous Shivaji and the Sultan of Bijapur come alive under Shors' lively pen. If our history books in school had been just half as engaging I would have scored much better grades!

In closing, I will have to say the author did a great job narrating the story through a 17th century Mughal princess. As one reads the story one really does feel for the Emperor( who lost his beloved wife and is betrayed by his own son) and his brave daughter Jahanara. It was a very engrossing read and as I neared the end I realized it was going to be hard for me to say goodbye to the characters - and isn't that a surefire way of knowing you have just read a very good book?


Dawn said...

I agree whole heartedly. When you wish the book was a sequel, you know you've read a great book.

hellomelissa said...

wow! i'd love to read this book. you make it sound so romantic and epic. i need a page turner to take to the gym and keep me going on the elliptical trainer. must... burn... off... summer... weight... gain...

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Dawn Thanks so much for the comment. I forgot to mention, the book will soon be made into a movie - can't wait!!! And you have got me thinking about the sequel - I can't remember which Mughal king came after Aurangzeb or was his reign the last of the Mughals? Help!!! I do know however that Shah Jahan's father, Jehangir, also had a beautiful wife that he loved very much -Noor Jehan and I am sure someone has written their story!

Howdy Melissa It is romantic, epic and so much more! I predict you will LOVE this one! Weight gain and you? Pfffffttt! You look as lovely and trim as ever.

sasgirl said...

Excellent review as always Lotus!

I'm definitely going out and buying this book as I've always been interested in the story of Shah Jahan after visiting the Taj Mahal when I was much younger.

It's so romantic!! *sigh* Wish I had someone who could build me a monument like that. :)

sruthi said...

let me just say that i LOVE your reviews and i LOVE your adjectives. i've never been to the taj mahal, i hope to go next summer! and of course, i want to read this book as well now. thanks!:)

booklogged said...

Lotus, I love coming to your site and finding out what your have read. Your reviews are so well-written and you always read such interesting books that are new to me. I'm hoping my library can get this for me on interlibrary loan. Have a great day.

Lotus Reads said...

'Allo sasgirl

I know exactly what you mean - my ideal romance would include my love interest building me the world's most beautiful building, but hey, that's not going to happen so I guess I'll just settle for my humble abode here in Ontario! ;)

Hi ya sruthi

I've never been to the Taj Mahal either. I hope you get to go next year,I'd love to know what you thought of it. Thanks for the nice comments - I'll never be as articulate as you are tho'! I miss reading your reviews, hope you return to the blogosphere soon!

Hello booklogged

Thanks so much for always appreciating the reviews I post here. I enjoy coming to your blog, too. There's always something you have read that I want to read or discuss.

paris parfait said...

Sounds fascinating! Thanks so much for the review.

Susan Abraham said...

Sounds like you enjoyed it thoroughly, Lotus.
And also, a promising one for me to look out for.
As always, a delicious title to match the outcome.


Saaleha said...

That sounds delicious. I'll be on the lookout. But first I need to get through what's on my list already (groan) and that list seems to be a self multiplying one.

Danielle said...

This sounds wonderful. I love epic love stories like this--I will add it to my list!

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you for stopping by, parisparfait, Susan, Saaleha and Danielle! If you do read the book, you must let me know what you think.

Bhaswati said...

You have convinced me to get this book, Lotus. My reading list keeps expanding at a scary pace when I come to your blog. Thanks for the lovely review!

Beloved dreamer said...

AH, At last!
Great review as always of a book I loved.
Hope I get to see the film.


karen! said...

I've had this book on my wishlist for quite some time. Now that I've see what you've written about it, I want to read it even more!

Lotus Reads said...

YOu're welcome Bhaswati! This book would make a really nice addition to any book lover's library!

Hi Beloved, So happy to have you back! The minute I hear more about the movie, I will let you know. Actually, come to think of it, I first heard about this book from you!

Hello Karen! How lovely to see you here. Hope you manage to get a copy of the book soon, I know you will love it!

Steve said...

Jahan was Aurangzeb's father.

Yet when Aurangzeb came to power, he'd killed his brother and soon had his father killed too.

Yet these were self-designed Gurkani rulers, beginning with Babur, the Timurid prince of Fergana who in 1526 conquered northern India. In the Punjab, Aurengzeb killed ninth and tenth Sikh Gurus. This is how the Sikh Khalsa was born, when Guru Tegh Bahadur's son Guru Gobind Singh symbolically sacrificed his Khalsa, the first of the saint-soldiers of the Sikhs.

This militancy of the Sikhs not only alarmed the Mughals but also the Rajputs who had allied with the Mughals in response to the Khalsa threat.

After a famous battle at the Sikh for of Anandpur Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh and 40 of his men survived a night time retreat.

In response to Aurangzeb's victory of most of the Sikh army, Guru Gobind sent a letter entitled the Zafarnama (Notification of Victory) which eloquently accused the Moghal emperor o treachery yet defiantly claimed a moral victory over the Moghals and Rajput mercenaries.

I would much rather see a movie about Aurangzeb and later Moghal emperors and their later defeat by the Sikhs as the Moghal empire collapsed as the Rajputs realized their fatal mistake in forcing the Sikhs to turn to militancy due to treachery.

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sona said...

I am very sorry to say this is the most irritating historical fiction I have ever Read. The Author have twisted the history as he wants.Jahanara was never married and she has no chield. If it was a fiction,I would congratulate the author for a sensetive novel but as a historical fiction it is worthless. It would draw a wrong image of Jahanara.He was respected by Aurangzeb. Upon her death Aurangzeb gave her the posthumous title 'Sahibat-uz-Zamani'