The Jasmine Throne
(Burning Kingdoms Book 1)
By Tasha Suri
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780356515649 — Paperback — 533 pp.
This review never made it up on the Skiffy & Fanty blog. The second book in the Burning Kingdoms series comes out tomorrow, and I plan to have my review of it up there then. So in the meantime, I decided to put up my review of the first book here, in case readers weren’t already aware and enjoying this wonderful epic fantasy series…
Regular followers of Skiffy and Fanty may already recognize the name Tasha Suri as the author of the well-received duology The Books of Ambha. Back in Episode 356 of the podcast, Paul picked the first novel of that series, Empire of Sand as a favorite Epic Fantasy of 2018. I haven’t gotten a chance to read those, but I was fortunate enough to discover Suri’s talent with The Jasmine Throne, the first book in her new Burning Kingdoms series. Its sequel, The Oleander Sword, is scheduled for release this August, so if you haven’t delved into this yet, let me convince you.
Ruthless and fanatical Emperor Chandra of the Parijatdvipa Empire has punished his sister Princess Malini for failing to fulfill her duty of immolation to the Mothers of Flame. Exiled to the colonized Ahiranya, under the care of Regent Vikram, Malini is imprisoned within the Hirana, a decaying temple of the Ashiranyi culture. She pins her only hope of rescue on a friend known as Rao, a noble from the Aloran realm of the Empire who worships the Nameless God – a man who is trying to unite Parijati factions under Prince Aditya, the elder brother of Malini and Chandra, who has abdicated the throne to become a Priest of the Nameless after a religious epiphany.
The site of a now lost spring of magical waters, the Hirana was once home to Temple Elders and children, whose connection to the Yaksa gods of the Ahiranyi manifested through surviving sequential baptism in those waters to become reborn twice, and thrice. The power of the Yaksa and the political domination of Ahiranya during the Age of Flowers ultimately ended with Parijati colonization: the destruction of the temple and slaughter of its adepts. As the magic of the gods has faded and the Ahiranyi culture becomes silenced, a mysterious rot forms in the surrounding forests, infecting the most vulnerable and slowly spreading to lands of the Empire beyond.
But, not all of the Temple children died in the purge. Priya escaped with her temple brother Ashok, who left young Priya at the regent’s court in care of Vikram’s Ahiranyi wife, Bhumika. Bhumika happens to be another former child of the temple, who had left to care for family before the destruction had occurred. Priya became one of Bhumika’s maidservants, suppressing her innate magic, and turning her meager life to helping the destitute whenever she could: such as taking in a young boy named Rukh who suffers from the rot.
In the meantime, Priya’s temple brother Ashok has gone on to become the volatile leader of a rebellion against the empire, and has turned his sights on using Priya to rediscover the lost waters of the Hirana and regain the powers of the Yaksa to overturn the oppressive foreign rule. The threads of Princess Malini and Priya’s lives become entangled when the two encounter one another within the Hirana, and the each realize the power of the other, and the potential they may have together to change to world.
The Jasmine Throne begins with the line: “In the court of the imperial mahal, the pyre was being built.” I’ve not read a more fitting line to start a novel. The events of the prologue truly set things up as Emperor Chandra orders a literal pyre built for immolation of Malini and her maidservants. But, this action also starts building a metaphorical pyre that will soon engulf the Parijatdvipa Empire and its colonized Ahiranyi.
Suri starts with Malini’s act of defiant rebellion against the misogynistic religious fervor of her brother, introduces the humble and compassionate Priya, and then slowly weaves the complex tapestry of characters and plot summarized above. Suri excels at revealing her world of the Burning Kingdoms series in a manner that feels effortless, natural, and engaging. I never felt lost amid the cast of characters and their disparate story lines that become increasingly entangled. Revelations are given to readers in a logical way that matches the pace of foreshadowing; the system of magic and the history of these lands becomes clear through well-placed background information given to the reader that Suri organically integrates with the plot and character motivations.
Chapters are each written with an identified point-of-view character, mostly alternating between Malini and Priya, but intermixed with others, particularly Bhumika. These three women become the central core emotional core of the novel, disparate in their temperaments, social castes, and goals, but united by their femininity and a desire to be recognized and seen as individuals of agency who can support one another.
Malini sees this, for instance, in Priya:
“Priya hated being belittled. Priya hated not being seen. Hated being made small… It was lucky, then, that it was always so easy to meet Priya’s gaze. To look into that face and give her what she wanted, simply by allowing herself to be honest. Not having to manipulate Priya felt like a small blessing.”
“I do not think you are used to being seen, are you Priya?“
It made something warm settle in her stomach, that thought. That she had recognized the value of this woman when all others hadn’t. That somehow […] she had witnessed a woman full of raw potential. Someone powerful who looked at her and looked at her, as if Malini – sick, unkempt, her curls in a snarl and her mind liquid – had the sun inside her.”
The relationship between Malini and Priya builds from uncertain alliance to friendship and on to romance, rekindling Sapphic unions that were accepted by the ancients during the Age of Flowers, but only became taboo upon colonization. This parallels the reality for cultures of Southeast Asia where homosexuality had been historically accepted, only to become suppressed in modern times. Suri addresses this type of outcome from cultural colonization throughout the novel, not just in sexuality but also at the levels of language and art. She points out the collective psychological damage that can happen to a conquered people, and what such oppression can end up inciting:
“Symbolism is important. And freedom. You will not understand this, Princess Malini. But there is a subtle pain the conquered feel. Our old language is nearly lost. Our old ways. Even when we try to explain a vision of ourselves to one another – in our poetry, our song, our theater masks – we do so in opposition to you, or by looking to the past. As if we have no future. Parijatdvipa has reshaped us. It is not a conversation, but a rewriting. The pleasure of security and comfort can only ease the pain for so long… Now bloodshed is inevitable…I gladly enter a pact that allows the death to be minimized, and even a shade of our freedom, our selves, to be saved.”
Bhumika also yearns for a voice of her own to match the power she clandestinely wields within her colonialized marriage. Just as the Ahiranyi resent the yoke of the Empire that quashes their cultural identity, so too does Bhumika become frustrated by a husband who can only see her as something to control, rather than recognizing and making use of her unique strengths and talents. She laments how perverse this is in the context of Virkam’s child that she carries within her:
“A child should not be a chain, used to yoke a woman like cattle to a role, a purpose, a life she would not have chosen for herself. And yet she felt then, with an aching resentment, how Vikram would use their child to reduce and erase here. She hated him for that, for stealing the quiet and strange intimacy of her and her own flesh and blood and making it a weapon.”
The three female characters of The Jasmine Throne have led lives where others around them have painted them as deviants, as monsters, declaring that the only purposes for womanhood are procreation and sacrifice.
“Some parts of me are monstrous,” Malini said… “You know why? A woman of my status and breeding, Chandra told me, should serve her family. Everyone told me I should be obedient to my father and my brothers and one day, my husband. But Aditya and Chandra made their choices, and I didn’t simply accept those choices. I didn’t obey. Because my brothers were wrong. But more than anything, Priya – more than that – I’m monstrous because I have desires… I’ve avoided marriage. I’ll never willingly beget children with a man. And what is more monstrous than that? To be inherently, by your nature, unable to serve your purpose? To want, simply because you want, to love simply for the sake of love?”
The novel is about these three women finding each other amid political situations that force things to a head, that force them to act. They reject the demented violence of rebellious men like Ashok. They strip the ignorant Vikram of power, and they mold the more tempered support of Rao and Aditya to their own will. The Jasmine Throne is about these women coming into power to change the world together, each to their own strengths.
“I’ve never wanted justice. Maybe I should have, but the thing I truly wanted was myself back. And now I just want to know – to prove – that the temple elders were wrong. Parijatdvipa was wrong. My brothers and sisters and I, we were never monsters. We didn’t deserve what was done to us. I want to believe that. I want to know that. I want that to be true, and if it isn’t I want to make it true. But you, Malini,” she said. “You want to remake the world.”
Though Priya recognizes this first in Malini, by novel’s end, Priya effectively states a variation of the same thing as her immediate goal, as she looks to take on the Rot. I cannot wait to continue the story of these three women, and all the other characters. (I have no room here to also go into all the interesting things she does to enrich her secondary characters, such as Rao and Rukh.) Suri’s skills here at imagining a captivating world populated by profound characters has easily enticed me to also read The Books of Ambha. She writes one hell of an engaging epic fantasy, full of entertainment, heart, and meaning.