BENEATH A MARBLE SKY seems like an epic fantasy novel from a
mythical, faraway realm, maybe there's a reason for that. We all
know what an abysmal job our educational system does in teaching
American history. So it's no surprise that our collective knowledge
of Indian history is nonexistent. Outside of how India is portrayed
in the movies --- Gandhi, let's say, or The Lives of a
Bengal Lancer or the Merchant-Ivory productions --- what most
of us know about India could fit in a thimble. Just speaking for
myself, personally, I know more about the history of imaginary
places like Gondor, or Tatooine, than I do about India, and that's
But everybody knows about the Taj Mahal.
More to the point, everybody knows two things about the Taj Mahal:
that it is the most beautiful building in the world and that it was
built by an ancient ruler to honor the memory of his beloved wife.
And that's generally it. What first-time novelist John Shors does
in BENEATH A MARBLE SKY is build on these two facts, add in some
impressive details, and use his imagination to create a beautiful,
dangerous, fantastic world.
BENEATH A MARBLE SKY is a first-person narration, and what a
person! Our heroine is Jahanara, the daughter of the Emperor Shah
Jahan and his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Jahanara is smart,
willing to flout Islamic tradition, kind to the poor, and devoted
to her parents. Even better, she's an engaging, engrossing narrator
with a dangerous streak.
The story begins with Jahanara growing up as a young girl, in the
perfumed harems of the Red Fort of Agra and at the foot of the
Peacock Throne, learning about intrigue and deception and imperial
politics, and applying this knowledge to the ongoing struggle
between her older brothers. The oldest, Dara, is humanistic and
gentle, and seeks reconciliation between the Muslim and Hindu
religions. His rival, Aurangzeb, is drawn to more conservative
interpretations of the Koran and the amassing of his own personal
and military power.
Jahanara, though, is separated from the world of the harem when her
parents inexplicably arrange a marriage to a smelly boor. (This
seems to happen offhandedly, accidentally, without the intrigue
that characterizes just about every other plot point in the novel.)
She escapes her husband only after the death of her mother, which
inspires her father to build the Taj Mahal. Broken down with grief,
the Shah entrusts the details of construction over to Jahanara, who
throws herself into the creation of the massive tomb. In the
process, she finds love with the young architect, but finds that
love complicates her life even more than the ongoing power
struggles for the Peacock Throne.
To say much more would be to spoil things, and nothing really
should spoil the ornate prose of John Shors, or the complex,
shifting plot of BENEATH A MARBLE SKY. Shors does a signal service
in introducing us to a different world --- a world filled with
romance and intrigue, cruelty and love --- that's all the more
compelling because it's based in historic fact, even if it's
history that you and I are not familiar with. BENEATH A MARBLE SKY
shows us that we should be.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds (firstname.lastname@example.org), who writes movie reviews at http://www.txreviews.com. on January 5, 2011
Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal