Sisters are so inconvenient, right? We’re always messing with your attempts to run an orderly, oppressive empire hostile to any religion except your own. Best to just ship us off to some quiet, out-of-the-way prison where we can languish until we decide to jump onto a pyre like a good girl. But, of course, there is always the possibility we will instead align ourselves with a plucky maidservant who has nascent powers granted by her culture’s nearly exterminated religion, and then … well, that would be bad.
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri intrigued me because its description just felt so fresh. This is a fantasy novel about political intrigue and rebellion, but most of the main characters are women. Moreover, it takes place in a fairly limited number of locations, none of which are the capital of the empire. Throughout the story, Suri challenges our expectations of what it means to be revolutionary, and reminds us that the revolution is merely the beginning of any attempt to take back one’s land and culture. I received an eARC from NetGalley courtesy of Orbit.
The two principal characters are Malini, a Parijati princess, and Priya, an Ahiranyan maidservant. Malini’s people have conquered several nations and turned them into vassals; Ahiranya itself is ruled by a Parijati regent who is sympathetic, in general, to the Ahiranyans—and he has married an Ahiranyan wife, who is our third main character—yet who nevertheless is willing to do “what’s necessary” to keep order. The entire political situation, as well as aspects of the different cultures, is loosely based on cultures located in what is now India. This departure from Eurocentric inspiration would by itself feel refreshing (not that Suri is unique in this, but it still isn’t common enough to feel common!). But it’s the dynamic between Malini and Priya, and the story that the two of them create together, that makes The Jasmine Throne stand out.
Malini has led a sheltered life, and it shows. Politically savvy, she wants to depose her brother, the Emperor Chandra, and replace him with her other brother, Aditya. Yet she has very little idea of how exigencies in life force people to desperation. This is a lesson she learns from Priya, a maidservant who was once something more, a child in training to be a priestess to the “Deathless Waters” of the Hirana, which just prior to the Parijati occupation were gifting children with powers that could have been, in the right (or wrong) hands, influential in the conflicts to come. This is what Ashok wants—like Priya, he grew up in the Hirana, and he wants to wield the powers of the waters against the occupying empire. But Ashok’s bar for “acceptable violence” is far lower.
There’s a lot that can be unpacked here. In particular, I want to focus on the ways in which each main character thinks change should be achieved. Malini wants to build an overwhelming military force to challenge the sitting emperor. Priya initially has very few ambitions for Ahiranya; she is just trying to survive and only ends up drawn into this conflict as a matter of survival. Somewhere along the way, her spiritual experiences result in a shift of her perspective. But she always opposes the militancy of Ashok, who is nearly uncompromising in his belief that violent uprising is the only way to free Ahiranya, even if it means lots of innocent people will die. Finally, Bhumika is a mixture of the traits of these others. She has more of a taste of power, as the regent’s wife, yet she would also avoid bloodshed if possible. She is far more pragmatic at politics than Priya too. All of these characters are fighting, in one way or another, for liberation. But they also don’t always agree, and that makes for fascinating conversations and plenty of potential for betrayal.
It would be easy to carve up some of these attributes along male/female lines. This book definitely has themes related to smashing the patriarchy—the ending fairly certainly communicates this! Yet this is not as simple as “men = aggressive” and “women = collaborative.” There’s a lot of aggression pent up in Malini and many of the other female characters, whereas some of the men are chill and not all that aggressive. In this way, Suri challenges that patriarchy is about natural differences between how men and women interact. It is indeed a system propped up by cultural and social constructs. We see this even in the cultural differences between Malini and Priya.
One thing I wish we had more time to explore would be the religions and cultures in the book. We get a small amount of exposition around the nameless god, whose followers receive a ritual name that is actual a prophecy for them to fulfill. That’s a very cool concept. But it’s less clear to me what kind of fire deity Chandra worships. In comparison, we learn much more about the yaksa, the Hirana, and other important parts of Ahiranyan spirituality. However, overall I was left wanting more on that level. Priya’s transformations, this idea of “hollowing out,” hints at something larger on a spiritual/moral level. I wanted to understand the deep cultural divides and how they might have shaped someone like Chandra into a tyrant and left such a mark on Malini.
On the other hand, I enjoyed that we never visited the capital except in flashbacks. It’s cool how all this action is taking place on the edges of the empire, rebellion brewing from discontent and malcontents. Suri captures the way that sprawling dominions can be fractious and hard to fully control: even when you sound out representatives, those representatives often have a difficult time enforcing your will.
I’m loath to comment on the romantic subplot given my aromantic tendencies and how much I tend not to pay attention to these things. Basically, you’ve got a lovely women-loving-women love story here, and there is definitely some payoff near the end (but it is not, let me be clear, a happily-ever-after type of romance). If that’s your thing, this book will not disappoint on that level.
My final nitpick? This book felt very long as an ebook. I’m not sure that’s anything Suri has done here; I think long books in general feel longer on e-readers. However, I suspect that this book’s pacing is in general rather slow. Suri takes her time developing each character and bringing them together, and maybe in my impatience I was hoping that would happen faster.
All in all, I’m very glad I picked up The Jasmine Throne. Will I read the sequel? Not sure yet. But I heartily recommend this book for anyone who wants something different in their fantasy, who wants a romance between women, who wants a story that’s a little different.