The Jasmine Throne – Book Review

Tasha Suri, author of the award-winning duology The Books of Ambha, is back with The Jasmine Throne, book one in a new trilogy that reaches heights few historical fantasies can reach. Set in a world inspired by the history and legend of India and Indian culture, this story uses strong and violent imagery, folklore, and an explosion of character nuance that creates a tapestry of emotionally resonant storylines.

When a book starts out with a sacrificial pyre, like the way The Jasmine Throne does, you know you’re in for a real treat. And that unbearable heat that blisters the skin, turning the mortal immortal, well, good luck trying to forget that smell of burning flesh. Because it will be your faithful companion for the remaining 500+ pages for this first chapter of the Burning Kingdoms Trilogy.

Here’s the summary…

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.
Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.
But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire.

Once in a while, when you’re just getting started on a book, something dawns on you, it’s a realization that you’re about to enter a brave new world, that you’re about to read something epic. And you’ll be hit with this realization right away with The Jasmine Throne as the book immediately, without flinching even once, drops you into the fire.

Listen; when you read enough books you begin to be able to recognize structures, patterns, and language very early on. And at some point, hopefully, you find the authors voice in amongst the text, and then, if done well, the book transcends….this book transcends.

So then, what’s this historical fantasy about?

When Princess Malini, sister to Chandra, the Parijati emperor, refuses to burn in one of his obstinate sacrificial pyres, she is sent to Ahiranya to spend the rest of her days contemplating her impure thoughts and puritanical mishaps. It’s a death sentence all the same, just much, much slower, and if she happens to die by some other means, more quickly, so be it. The point is, she’s no longer any use to her brother and is therefore humiliated, demeaned, and discarded.

Meanwhile, under Parijatdvipa’s control, the neighboring Ahiranya is a bit of a powder keg waiting to go off as the local Regent does his best to keep the homegrown rebels at bay, who are using extreme methods themselves looking to free their land from the Emperor’s ever increasing violent rule. Within Ahriranya is Hirana, an old temple that used to be of some special magnificence, housing what was a strange elemental magic known as the “deathless waters”, and those that would wield it. After a very tragic fire, which is still shrouded in mystery, the place was abandoned and the now former residents who survived, orphaned. This is where Malini was sent, and these ruins would serve as both her new home and prison. It’s also where our story really begins as it’s here, in Hirana, where she meets Priya, an unknown and unremarkable person at first, but soon someone she’ll need like a bad habit.

Like the summary says, Priya is a maidservant who volunteers to see to Malini’s day-to-day. It’s not the best job in the world, but it’s a small step-up over what she was doing before, which was basically the same thing just for less money. To most people, there’s nothing particularly special about Priya, she’s unattractive, quiet, and isn’t the greatest maidservant the Ahriranya has ever seen. But there’s something beneath the surface, a hidden past that connects her Hirana’s magic in ways very few will understand.

The Jasmine Throne has a staggering amount of POV’s, with each person in one way or another adding vital weight to the overall mission of this story. One of the best compliments I can pay Tasha is that, even though I was exasperated by very late in the game new character chapters, it never once feels overcrowded, and always feels under control. No easy feat and Tasha flexes her storytelling muscles with excellent plotting, layer after layer of plausible character motivation, and divine world building that will require all five of your senses.

Yes, her vision of India and world-building will receive a fair amount of praise, as it should, but she uses a phased in approach that doesn’t overwhelm you, rather building carefully with each passing moment. At some point, and I couldn’t pinpoint it, you become immersed in this world and feel as though you’re walking the same paths kicking up the same dirt, the unbearable heat from which there is no escape, the many blessings of cool water as it slides down your desiccated throat. Indeed, by the time you get to a very specific waterfall scene, you’ll feel like you’ve dipped yourself in magic waters.

But at the heart of this book is the relationship between Malini, Priya, and Priya’s muscles, and all that that entails. Put simply, if either one had a Facebook page, “It’s complicated” doesn’t even come close to describing this doozy of a relationship. It’s a constant push/pull that will remind you of a 14-round boxing match where the two fighters are so evenly matched, determining an outcome before the final bell is an exercise in futility. And they are, evenly matched, despite their unique skillsets, but what one may lack, the other excels in, and this ebb and flow is choreographed beautifully by Tasha.

What’s great about their attraction to one another is that it’s based on a feeling, an unnerving cyst in the pit of their stomach that tells them “you will never love another person as much as you love this one”. It’s that unnamable force that isn’t easily described with words, but rather felt, and is more powerful than any magic or Emperor. In fact, Tasha goes out of her way to remind you that these women aren’t customarily beautiful, that Priya has a crooked nose and that Malini is a pale shade of her former self, and yet this raw attraction could move mountains. But, Tasha doesn’t make it easy nor simply clear the path for this consummation, and besides; both are very pre-occupied with some big-picture stuff and are committed to seeing those through. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole pile of stolen glances, soft touches, and that waterfall scene I mentioned that should make anyone a true believer. But Malini and Priya won’t be able to change the world on their own, and help comes in many forms, once of which is the Ahiranya Regents’ wife, Bhumika.

Seemingly unimpressive at first, Tasha doesn’t so much as build Bhumika up as she reveals her true self, peeling back layer after layer of truth. To most, she represents what a woman of the times can achieve through a quiet, unassuming sacrifice.  And where Priya and Malini present a more modern sensibility of what women can accomplish in this world, it’s on the backs of women like Bhumika who have allowed for that to happen, eschewing notions of equality and true power over a more humbled approach to humanitarianism. Priya and Malini are bold to be sure, aided by unique gifts, but Bhumika, herself hiding a bit of talent, represents courage. From Priya’s point of view, Bhumika, while generous, had lived a life that was just a long list of bridled sacrifices. I’m sure Priya thought to herself many times that when she got to be Bhumika’s age, she wouldn’t allow a man to determine her fate. On this point, and in the history of being wrong, Priya is the world champion of misconstruing someone else’s intentions, and that’s all I say on that.

Together, these three women aren’t looking to just take down the patriarchy, but destroy it for all time, and they each have a particular male figure in their life that fuels these strong emotions. We’ve already mentioned Malini’s male demoralizer, her Emperor brother, as for Priya, it’s her once thought dead brother Ahsok, and for Bhumika, her husband, the Regent of Ahriranya, who fill those roles. But if the only thing they had in common was the men in their world, we wouldn’t have met them at all.

The women in The Jasmine Throne are born into pain; they can’t change that fact any more than the sun can stop from shining. Sure, one day our closest star will run out of hydrogen gas, ending its main sequence, but until then, it will rise and set. And so, the women of these times must endure, must also rise and set, until they also move onto to another form of existence. For some, that will ultimately mean death, untimely or otherwise, but for others, immortality is more than just burning at the stake of a psychotic emperor. It means either through words or actions, their deeds will live on forever.

And so, Priya, Malini, and Bhumika look only to live the next few moments well, history will judge them accordingly. And sometimes that can mean wielding elemental powers that will seem ungodly. Sometimes than can mean choosing apostasy over refusing your heart’s desires. And sometimes, than can mean taking in an orphaned child, even though their fate is already sealed. Either way, their common end game is leaving the world in better shape than when they found it.

The way in which the patriarchy imposes their might and will isn’t furtive here, it’s up front and it’s violent. There are moments of cessation and stop-gaps, gestures of kindness and generosity from those that would rather see someone else in charge, but mostly it’s a humorless and threadbare series of reminders that men are in charge, and that women are shields. These three are hoping to change just that, but will need the help of many, men included, to do just that. We are getting awfully close to spoiler territory, so I’ll stop here, but understand that the men in each of their lives play just as complicated and important roles as any other in the book, and for entirely different reasons.

The magic in The Jasmine Throne is a combination of elemental and biological forces coming together. The Ahiranyi used to worship the yaksa (kind of like Ents) and the Hirana temple people would channel this power. They of course got too powerful for the more imperialistic minded, and had to be either controlled or dealt with. This part of the story is told through in-universe folktales and flashbacks, providing a backstory for not only some of the key players involved, but the lengths Parijati would go, to impose their rule, their religion, their way of life. Sorry tree people.

It’s imperialistic nation crushing 101, destroying their hearts and minds by eradicating not just its people, but their culture, their philosophies, and their conviction. As is always the case, the coup, while mostly effective, didn’t take with everyone, especially those that had the wherewithal to fight back, and their time for payback, luckily for us readers, is now.

Listen, I’ve barely scratched the surface here as Tasha has weaved a tapestry so intricate and unique, that I certainly won’t be the one to spoil it for you. And if you think this review is long, wait until you see the book, but don’t let the length intimidate you and don’t let anyone tell you the book is slow. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, purposeful isn’t slow, exposition isn’t slow, these are the building blocks of the story, which needs a “getting-to-know-you” phase just like any character would.

Even if another Burning Kingdoms book never got released, The Jasmine Throne is a 5-star read any way you slice it. So, if you’re looking for something meaningful, something real, then look no further than The Jasmine Throne.

Lastly, a quick shoutout to Micah Epstein and Lauren Panepinto who are responsible for the cover art and design respectively. It’s an incredible cover and really great to see a South Asian woman front and center, something we’re seeing more and more of.

The Jasmine Throne is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!