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Mughal Intrigue

  • Jul 11, 2009
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In "Beneath a Marble Sky," novelist John Shors makes ample use of literary license as he tells the story of the inception and creation of one of the world's most beautiful tombs -the Taj Mahal. Told in the first person by Mughal princess Jahanara, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and his favorite wife, Arjumand, "Beneath a Marble Sky" follows the tradition of novels with a seraglio flare like "The Red Tent: A Novel, " "Sarah: A Novel (Canaan Trilogy)" and "Tamar" that concentrate on the trials of spirited women struggling to survive in a world dominated by men.

Taking into consideration that, the historic Jahanara had been denied wedded bliss due to an ancient imperial decree which forbade the marriage of any Mughal princess, much of Shors plotline, that of the loveless slave-like relationship his heroine endures at the hands (and feet) of the boorish Khondair is a pure contrivance that serves only to emphasize the clandestine love that links Jahanara with Isa, the master architect of the world famous mausoleum. Again, Shors tweaks history for the sake of romance; the actual architect of the Taj Mahal is unknown however, Persian artisan Ustad Ahmad Lahauri most likely created the remarkably beautiful building and crafted its magnificent gardens.

Its not as if Shors needed to add another layer of cardamom to this very Indian masala; the lives of the Mughal emperors and their successions were riddled with as much if not more decadence, grandeur and intrigue as the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. In this case, Jahanara's two brothers compete almost from the cradle for their father's approval that unsurprisingly leads to bloodshed and treachery as Shah Jahan ages and approaches a premature death. As all good stories go, the plucky protagonist sides with the wrong brother and cultivates the everlasting hatred of the other that as a member of the `fair sex' she must combat with schemes that take years to put into action, well-appointed spies that devote their lives to her well-being and all manner of artifice and spur of the moment deceptions.

In his attempt to keep the story within its timeframe, Shors' narration in Jahanara's voice becomes, at times, stilted in its anachronism. In sad addition to this, despite the never-ending sedition and necessity for vigilance, the plotline plods along in seemingly clichéd and forced contrivances. Overall the framing of the story as Jahanara revealing to her grown granddaughters their true identity as descendants of the Mughal Emperors enhances the plot only to ice an already sugared confection with more radically divergent improbabilities that depart from the actual truth. The historical Jahanara ended her days as her brother's first lady rather than his arch foe.

Be that as it may, Shors' strength is in his ability to fashion a wonderful intimacy between Isa and his heroine. Both spout poetry and gaze at the multitudinous constellations that sparkle in the night sky with the silhouette of the Taj Mahal as a backdrop. Perhaps wisely, he eliminates the notion that as she resembled her famous mother in her beauty, Jahanara was cherished by her father not only as a beloved daughter but, as a consort. Besides Jahanara, the other characters in this drama seem two-dimensional in their motivations; Shors needed to beef up the psychological prodding to exact a more believable and compelling thrust to the plotline.

Bottom Line: John Shors' "Beneath a Marble Sky" contains all the elements necessary to drive its reader to the last page at a breakneck pace. However, his old-fashioned language and stale secondary characterizations make the total presentation a sum of less than its parts. Regardless, the princess Jahanara and her time period evoke interest, but this story sings best when it waxes romantic under a crescent moon lighting the marble façade of the fabled building it showcases. Recommended as a so-so historical tale.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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More Beneath a Marble Sky: A Love S... reviews
review by . August 09, 2010
A romantic reconstruction of imperial life in 17th century India, "Beneath a Marble Sky" recounts the turbulent story of princess Jahanara, the daughter of the emperor who commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal as a fabulous testament to the overwhelming love of his wife. Well educated, literate, a wily diplomat, savvy political advisor and a bright, witty conversationalist and companion at a time when Muslim women were held in particularly low esteem, Jahanara has been well taught …
Quick Tip by . August 09, 2010
The passionate, lush and dramatic re-creation of the love story behind the creation of the Taj Mahal, an elegant work of art. Even for the most ardent history-phobes, the story is so beautifully told, you'll hardly be aware of the fact that you're reading historical fiction at its very best.
review by . September 28, 2006
John Shors has the gift. It is as simple as that. In BENEATH A MARBLE SKY he has created a stunning love story woven through the interstices of the 16th century Hindustani building of the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the world, a place on earth where Paradise touches mortals in a magnificent mausoleum for the beloved wife of the Emperor. Not only is this a symphonic novel of surpassing craftsmanship and beauty, it is also a book that informs the reader about the differences between Muslim …
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Diana Faillace Von Behren ()
Ranked #178
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments.      Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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Shors's spirited debut novel tells the story of the eldest daughter of the 17th-century emperor who built the Taj Mahal. From her self-imposed exile, Jahanara recalls growing up in the Red Fort; the devotion her parents, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, had for each other; and the events that took place during the construction of the fabulous monument to their love. Although Jahan is the emperor and has many wives, Mumtaz (he calls her Taj) is his soul mate, a constant companion and wise political consultant. She even travels with him into battle, where she eventually dies giving birth to their 14th child. Fortunately, she has the foresight to begin preparing her favorite daughter, Jahanara, by instructing the girl in the arts of influence and political strategy. Thus the young woman is able to pick up where her savvy mother left off. From then on it is Jahanara who advises the emperor, often instead of her dreamy brother, Dara, who is the rightful heir to the throne. It is she who helps with construction of the magnificent mausoleum for Mumtaz's remains and who falls in love with its architect, Isa, a man whom she can never marry. And it is she who leads a failed effort to defend the throne against a coup by her evil brother, Aurangzeb. With infectious enthusiasm and just enough careful attention to detail, Shors give a real sense of the times, bringing the world of imperial Hindustan and its royal inhabitants to vivid life.
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Books, Cafe Libri, Historical Fiction, India Fiction, Taj Mahal


ISBN-10: 0451218469
ISBN-13: 978-0451218469
Author: John Shors
Publisher: NAL Trade

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