This review comes with a warning that my brain wasn’t up to its usual standards when I read this book. I listened to the audiobook, which I liked, but I had a hard time concentrating, needed to re-listen to chapters a lot and I may have fallen asleep more often than not (due to my pregnancy, not because the book is boring!). I am aware that, had I read this at a different time, I might have enjoyed it much more, so take my rating and impressions with a grain of salt. I’m still recommending this book overall but it wasn’t the instant hit I was hoping for.
THE JASMINE THRONE
by Tasha Suri
Published: Orbit, 2021
Hardcover: 576 pages
Audiobook: 19 hours 43 minutes
Series: Burning Kingdoms #1
My rating: 6.5/10
Opening line: In the court of the imperial mahal, the pyre was being built.
Author of Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, beginning a new trilogy set in a world inspired by the history and epics of India, in which a captive princess and a maidservant in possession of forbidden magic become unlikely allies on a dark journey to save their empire from the princess’s traitor brother.
Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.
Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.
But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire
This was one of those fantasy books that I appreciate for what it’s doing without ever really having built up an emotional connection to the story or the characters. Like watching events unfold from afar and being intrigued by them, but not feeling like I’m part of things. Until I give this a re-read, I’ll never know if that’s just a result of pregnancy brain or if I just didn’t vibe with this particular book but the listening experience was rewarding, nonetheless.
We follow a cast of characters, although two of them more closely than others, who live in a recently conquered place called Ahiranya. The Parijati Empire has taken over the land and done what Empires usually do – oppress the people, destroy and/or deny their culture, and forbid their religion. In this particular case, that meant killing all the Temple Children and Elders, the ones who could wield magic considered wrong in the eyes of the evil emperor. And the emperor is pretty straight forwardly evil. I mean, who sends their own sister to burn on a pyre and expects her to climb up there of her own free will (because honor or whatever) and when she doesn’t comply sends her into exile where she is to be slowly poisoned and kept in total isolation from other humans? That’s right, Emperor Chandra does.
I normally don’t like over the top evil villains and this one didn’t exactly show a lot of nuance, but as there are enough other characters to keep things interesting, I will forgive Tasha Suri the crazy emperor.
Much more interesting and complex are the two main female characters. First of all, the Emperor’s sister who refused to be burned alive (I know, how dare she, right?) and a young handmaiden named Priya who is happy to remain an unseen servant because it helps her keep her big secret. But Priya stumbles into the job of becoming Princess Malini’s servant and thus starts a tale not only of attraction and later romance, but also of accepting her own past and identity. And the same goes for Malini. They are very, very different people, not only because of their different cultures and social standing or even shades of skin color. But also in terms of moral code, one of them is definitely more inclined to sacrifice a few things (or people?) to reach her goals than the other. And even though I didn’t particularly feel the romance between them, I do so appreciate multi-layered characters! Especially female characters who get to be all sorts of protagonists. They don’t have to be the perfectly good, ultimately feminine, can-do-no-wrong kind of women, they just get to be people. Who have flaws and make stupid decisions sometimes and regret their words and save each other and have desires and dreams… you get the point.
Funnily enough, my favorite character was one that doesn’t even get that many viewpoint chapters. The Palace where Priya works before she becomes Malini’s maid, is run by a Regent who, in turn, is married to a woman named Bhumika. And Bhumika is that rare character that first appears as one thing and then turns out to be way more than we expected. I don’t want to give anything away here but I whooped out loud at a certain scene that had to do with her and I generally found her to be the coolest character in the book. That’ll teach me to underestimate side characters!
There are many more characters, some of whom are more important than others, some who appear more often than others, and all of them were interesting and believable in their own right. There’s Priya’s brother Ashok, the young orphan boy Rukh whom she helped get work at the Palace, a man named Rao who wants to save Princess Malini, and a few others that would get me into spoiler territory.
I haven’t even mentioned all the other layers this book has to offer and maybe it was because of those many layers that I had such a hard time concentrating. Because we have this whole cultural and magical past to figure out alongside Priya, we have characters’ shared histories to unravel, we have a magic system that’s pretty cool but also demans dangerous things from its followers, and – just as a side note – we have an emperor to overthrow if we want the world to become a better place. So there is plenty to discover between the covers of this book and I think it’s a rich addition to non-Western fantasy with its Indian-inspired setting.
I wish I had managed to let myself fall into this world a bit more deeply. The beginning, during which I could still concentrate much better, was quite atmospheric. I hope to re-read this when the second book of the trilogy comes out later this year. It will be called The Oleander Sword and is graced with another gorgeous cover! You could technically stop reading the series after the first book because although certain plot strings remain unresolved, the most pressing ones are well-rounded and lead to a more or less satisfying ending. The book could stand on its own is what I’m saying. But as there is much more of this world to see and certain things I hope to still happen with certain character pairings, I will continue reading the trilogy and see how Tasha Suri keeps growing in talent with every book.
MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good