What an exciting and involving novel this is! Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne takes a while to set its crowded stage but soon launches into a powerful story of two extraordinary women, each trying to gain power of very different types. When thrown together, despite their vastly different backgrounds, one (Priya) apparently a lowly servant, the other (Malini) a princess, they feel the strong pull of feelings they are not sure they can express and the push of needing to use each other to survive and achieve a wholeness that may drive them apart. It is a brilliant South Asian-based fantasy that explores issues of relationships and power deeply relevant to today’s world.
The Jasmine Throne opens with preparation of a funeral pyre on which three young high-born women of the Parijatdvipa empire are to be immolated in an act of purification by fire. The princess Malini refuses this fate that her emperor brother Chandra has pushed on her as part of his fanatical faith. And even more by his abhorrence at what he sees as her impurity (her attraction to women). At her refusal, Chandra has her imprisoned in the abandoned citadel of a religious order of Ahiranya, a country brutally conquered and now ruled by a Parijati regent. That prison, the Hirana, had been the sacred center of Ahiranyi culture until destroyed by the invaders, and its elders and children burned alive.
From that inferno years ago, the children Priya and her brother Ashok had escaped with the help of an elder of their faith and of supernatural powers they were just beginning to learn. Priya had to make her way then as a servant, finding work in the household of the regent, due to the kindness of his wife, Bhumika. Ashok disappeared into the killing fields of the bone forests to await his chance to take revenge on the Parijati invaders.
Ahiranya is a land that has fallen partly into ruin since the destruction of its spiritual elders and the growth of a kind of rot that infects people as well as crops and forests. In a remote period known as the Age of Flowers, Ahiranya was a rich country that had come close to ruling the whole sub-continent. Now that period seems like a distant golden age to the Ahiranyi but for Parijatdvipa it was a time of despotism from which the empire arose to save the Parijati people.
Priya and Malini absorbed those clashing histories as children and, in some ways, their destinies are forever shaped by that background. Despite that their deep attraction for each other brings them together at critical times as they follow their different paths.
This is a complex story that takes its time exploring ideas about many types of power, spiritual, magical, political and military, but mostly the power of purpose and the force of love complicating the main characters’ drive to fulfill their destinies. It also delves quite subtly into the many faces or roles its characters must assume to reach their goals.
Most telling, though, is the powerful attraction between Priya and Malini. They feel a complex love for each other, one that, at first, they dare not express because of its forbidden nature in their world. But even as they partly overcome those strictures the power they seek forces each of them in their own way to adopt a different idea of who they are.
As Priya puts it at one moment, she wonders if the power she seeks is a cure or a curse, something monstrous or a force for good. She asks herself, can you seek power and preserve your self? How many selves do we contain? Both Priya and Malini struggle with these questions throughout the book. It is a measure of the depth of Tasha Suri’s vision that, even when they achieve what they seek, they cannot forget the many selves they have to suppress to keep on their chosen paths.
I’m putting this in fairly abstract terms to keep from giving away the story, but these characters dwell in a richly imagined world. It is set in the Parijatdvipa empire of the Indian sub-continent at some indeterminate time. There is a multiplicity of languages and spiritual traditions and a complicated struggle among several vassal states of Parijat to take down an unjust emperor and regain their freedom. It’s an age with rigid divides between rulers and commoners and military traditions based on swords and bows and strategic thinking honed through a chess-like board game.
At the heart of the struggle over the empire is Malini’s effort to free herself from imprisonment and find her older brother Aditya who gave up the throne to his younger brother, Chandra, in favor of a monk’s life of contemplation. Malini’s goal is to convince him to take back the throne with the help of armies of other vassal states. At the same time, Ashok is pursuing the ancient powers of Ahiranya to achieve the strength he needs to lead a rebel band to free his country from Parijatdvipa.
The Jasmine Throne is the first book of The Burning Kingdoms trilogy. While it sets up the story for a continuation, you never have the feeling that the author is holding back. This is a powerful story, of both sapphic love and a rise to power on multiple levels, told with great human warmth and sensitivity yet never flinching from the hard realities of a brutal world.