Skip to main content

Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal


Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal

If 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 a fact.

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 on January 5, 2011

Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal
by John Shors

  • Publication Date: May 31, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: McPherson & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0929701976
  • ISBN-13: 9780929701974