REVIEW: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Dear Tasha Suri,
After enjoying Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash, your earlier duo of romantic fantasy novels set in an India-based world, I decided to request an ARC of The Jasmine Throne, the first novel in your new Burning Kingdoms trilogy.
Priya is a servant in the regent’s Mahal in the city of Hiranaprastha in Ahiranya, a once-independent country now subjugated by the empire of Parijatdvipa.
Long ago, it was Ahiranya that ruled the region. Ahiranya’s leafy gods, the Yaksa, gifted their temple’s elders with terrible powers that enabled Ahiranya’s rule. Then, in Parijatdvipa, three women (now worshiped as the Mothers) immolated themselves and with that sacrifice, some Parijatdvipans gained flame-based powers that drove the Yaksa away from the human world. Parijatdvipa now rules not only Ahiranya but three other countries/city-states.
Ahiranya’s ascendancy, known as the Age of Flowers, is long over now. Ahiranya has been under Parijatdvipan rule for generations, and is viewed by many in the empire as its dregs. It’s a poor country; outsiders come there for the pleasure houses and not much else. The regent, Vikram, in whose kitchen Priya works, was appointed by the emperor to rule Ahiranya.
There has recently been a change in emperors. The old emperor died and his heir, Aditya, disappeared into a monastic life in Alor (one of the other countries). Chandra, the new heir, is cruel and sadistic, and his most recent act as emperor was to order his sister and her two attendants to immolate as the Mothers did. Vikram worries about what that sadistic cruelty means for Ahiranya and for himself.
In her spare time, Priya goes to the market to purchase food and sacred wood for the city’s sick stray children. The wood is a treatment for rot, a terminal illness that causes plant material to sprout in the bodies of the infected (those who have the sickness are treated like lepers even though rot isn’t contagious so many rot-stricken children end up on the street).
It is near the market that Priya meets Rukh, a boy with rot. She can’t afford to purchase sacred wood that day and she doesn’t know if Bhumika, the regent’s wife, will agree to give Rukh work and shelter, but she goes out of her way to obtain them for him and succeeds. Rukh reminds Priya of the child she once was and she’s driven to postpone his inevitable death.
Priya wasn’t always a kitchen maid. Once, she was a temple child, one of twenty-five kids who survived the deathless waters of the Hirana, the sacred temple to the Yaksa, and obtained magical abilities in the process. Most of the other children there, Priya’s “temple brothers” and “temple sisters,” were massacred, burned by Parijatdvipan soldiers. Priya and her brother Ashok escaped. She survived life on the city streets for several years thanks to Ashok’s protection.
Priya remembers almost nothing about her temple childhood. Part of her wishes that she did, but she knows that to a large degree it is safer for her that way. But then Parijatdvipan Princess Malini is imprisoned in the Hirana and Priya’s life is forever changed.
Unlike her two attendants, Princess Alori and Lady Narina, Malini refused her brother’s immolation command (it is never made clear why the others agreed; they were Malini’s good friends and Alori was a royal of Alor, so presumably she was offered a choice), so her brother Chandra has her imprisoned in the Hirana.
That is only a different kind of death sentence. Malini’s keeper is Lady Pramila, who hates her. On Chandra’s orders Pramila doses Malini with needle-flower, an opiate, and she reads to her about the Mothers, her ancestors, and how they sacrificed themselves to the fires. Malini is also locked up in the very room where the children of the Hirana were burned and she’s never allowed out.
Malini is therefore tormented by hallucinations of her friends and horror at their burning. The dose of needle-flower that Pramila administers is too high, and Malini is given too little food. Purportedly Chandra wants her to contemplate her crime (she plotted to overthrow him because she understood his cruelty better than anyone) for the rest of her life, but really, he wants her to die a painful death.
Priya and Malini meet when Priya begins to work at the Hirana. It doesn’t happen until one of Ashok’s fanatical followers (Ashok is now the leader of a band of Ahiranyan rebels), infiltrating the regent’s household as another maid, realizes Priya was once a temple child and attacks Priya for hiding her identity. Priya briefly regains a small measure of the inhuman strength she once possessed through her presence in the Hirana and uses it to defend her life, killing the other woman. And Malini, whose door was left open by mistake, witnesses that.
Priya expects the Parijatdvipan princess to expose her as a temple child immediately but Malini’s next action saves her life. Malini acts the role of terrified woman. She claims that Priya’s attacker was an assassin attempting to kill her and that Priya saved her life.
Of course, Malini has her own motive for this. When Vikram visits the princess to assure himself that she is all right, Malini begs him to make Priya her guard. Vikram, who knows his life will be forfeit if Malini dies under his care, even if the emperor wants and desires her death, rationalizes that in this case making an exception to the emperor’s edict can do no harm.
Through this stroke of luck and cunning, Malini manages to get Priya assigned to her rooms. She knows that Priya’s inhuman strength can mean only one thing: that Priya is a temple child and can therefore help her regain the freedom on which her life depends and the fate of the empire rests. So she sets out to persuade Priya to do it by any means required, including manipulation and seduction.
The book’s other major plot line is about the politics between these countries–how the new emperor’s iron fist tightens around Ahiranya, the Ahiranyans reactions to that, and the results of that, as well as the question of whether enough opposition to Chandra’s rule can be gathered in other countries to overthrow him. To say almost anything about this would be to spoil.
Besides this there are also four other significant subplots. One concerns Ashok and his band of rebels’ plans for insurgency, their quest to attain the kind of powers the temple children once had, and his Machiavellian plan to bring Priya into it. A second is about Bhumika’s clandestine activities, as well as her marriage to Vikram and how she uses her role as his wife to further her ends. The third subplot is focused on Rao, prince of Alor and Alori’s brother, who has come to Hiranaprastha to help Malini escape if he can. Lastly, the fourth is about Priya’s relationship with the boy Rukh, and about his impending death. That’s a lot of things to have going on, but The Jasmine Throne balances and interweaves them well.
Priya is a magnificent character. She looks homely and rough, but she is softhearted at her core. This doesn’t mean her strength of purpose is missing, just that it’s directed at exploring her past and helping others. Malini, in contrast, may be outwardly beautiful, fragile and tender, but her center is calculating, cunning, pragmatically cold, and she’s bent on avenging Alori and Narina.
They are opposites in other ways, too. Priya is a lowly servant from a subjugated country and Malini the highest princess in the realm, yet Priya has the freedom to come and go as she pleases when Malini is imprisoned. Priya once possessed a magical power; Malini a political one. Malini’s power was wielded with subtlety and in secret, since it’s considered unfitting for women to lead in Parijatdvipa; Priya not only had the freedom to manifest her power, it was also revered by some. The two women undergo opposite growth arcs, also; Priya acquires more and more toughness as Malini softens and warms.
But Priya and Malini share commonalities as well. Each one is oppressed, and each once had power and has fallen low since. They have both suffered the deliberate burnings of those they loved and are now traumatized. Each has big reserves of emotional strength. And of course, both are queer.
For the first 80%, this is a near-perfect book. The ways the two aspects play out is terrific, with the two women’s characterizations deepening and the story taking unexpected turns. Even when I sensed something was coming, I couldn’t guess how it would come about; the foreshadowing was just that good. The women’s relationship also plays an integral part in the possible destinies their two different countries/worlds take and that gives the romance high stakes.
The romance is as central to the novel as it can possibly be without detracting from the other main plot. Then, too, Priya and Malini’s differences and commonalities add up to an incendiary chemistry. I felt, when I read the book, that even a dust mote between them would go up in flames. The walls between them only come down gradually, and almost every sentence they exchange both before and after that is freighted with meaning.
As to the political/world plot, it is one I can say almost nothing about without spoiling it, but I liked that it explored multiple forms of oppression and resistance, and the way the author handles the pacing of revelations and developing events is impressive.
Of the side characters I liked Rao best. I suspected what lay behind his devotion to Malini before it came out, but I think readers are meant to. The foreshadowing added to the tension in that storyline rather than defusing it.
I wasn’t sure whether to like Bhumika. It was clear that she’d do whatever needed doing to achieve her goal (including playing the meek, submissive wife to Vikram whereas in reality she was tough as nails), but equally clear that her goal was good.
A similar determination was Ashok’s main characteristic, but his ends were portrayed in a negative light. The insurgency seemed at least as likely to tear Ahiranya apart as to strengthen it. And I wished he had been deepened as a character. He had a lot of charisma on the page and it was clear why his people followed him, but his characterization could have used more depth and dimension.
Vikram was a more nuanced character. His desire to maintain peace in Ahiranya conflicted with his need not to offend Chandra. He was afraid to take a stand because he didn’t want to lose his position.
My least favorite character in the book was Rukh. He sniveled and even if he had some cause to, it wasn’t attractive. He has no admirable characteristics, nor is he hateworthy (even that would have given him something).
I also thought that Priya’s attachment to him needed substantiating, since she singled him out to favor over the other rot-stricken street kids. We were told that he reminded her of herself as a child, but why him more than the others? They weren’t similar in personality.
This world is more developed, shaded and deepened than the world of the Books of Ambha. With at least three countries and three religions (Alor’s religion of the Nameless is the third) in the mix, it feels more expansive, and that’s true in terms of the plot and characters, too. The trilogy format allows for steeper arcs, for more surprise, for a more immersive setting with a greater capacity to fascinate, for more nuance, a more epic battle on the horizon and a more epic romance already here. As I read the book I thought “Tasha Suri has stepped up her game.”
The last fifth of the book isn’t on par with the rest, but it’s still not bad. There are some big developments, but it does feel rushed and contrived, as if it can’t get to where it needs to go without pushing too hard. That was frustrating.
But for the first 80%, the novel unfolds as organically as a flower. Priya gradually coming into her power; Malini slowly uncovering her softness. Tensions in Ahiranya rising; Vikram’s power slipping. Even more, the amazing romantic relationship and the reader’s discovery of the novel—its plot, its world and its epic stakes. All are paced with perfection—with nothing rushed and nothing dragging—and reveal themselves to the reader as naturally and beautifully as a blossom, in their own time.
I wish that this feat had been sustained for the whole book. Nevertheless, this is the best 2021-published book I’ve read thus far. A-/A.