With The Jasmine Throne, by Tasha Suri, I’m finally getting back to being caught up with the Sword & Laser Book Club picks – more or less (November’s pick is Six Wakes, which I read a while back, so I’m using this month to catch up on some other books). While I liked the novel, my thoughts on The Jasmine Throne are complicated in ways that somewhat intersect with my views on She Who Became The Sun, and in ways that don’t.
A quick explanation of the premise. The book is set in the former kingdom of Ahiranya, which is now a conquered vassal state of a larger empire. The former princess of that empire, Malini, has been exiled to Ahrianya by her sadistic, misogynist brother for the crime of refusing to be burned alive as a sacrifice. There she is being held in the former temple of the Hirana – the gods of Ahrianya until she “repents” and agrees to die in the agreed-upon manner. In the meantime, the people of Ahrianya try to keep their culture and language alive in the face of their oppressors, but the actions of a group of violent rebels have lead to even more violent crackdowns by the empire. And in the middle of all of this is a former priestess (or future priestess) of the temple, Priya, who is in touch the plant life of the kingdom, after a past baptism in the temple’s magical waters. And then there’s also the disease known as the Rot, which causes people to experience plant growths upon their body until it kills them.
So here’s where things get complicated – while the story is based on the cultures of the Indian subcontinent – the Empire in question is also very much not the British. Which leads to my complicated sentiments. With She Who Became the Sun – the book I read very shortly before I started this one – I was aware enough of Chinese history and modern politics to understand the prejudices in play, and to get how deeply problematic the story was, in terms of its depiction of the Mongols. Unfortunately, because I was going to this so close to the other book (it was only a month between the two books), those worries were very fresh in my mind.
That ties into the other problem I had. I know enough about the Indian subcontinent to know that you have a wide variety of cultures and religious groups within what is now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, beyond Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhs, and Jains. These groups have also had long and complicated histories with each other, including violence by the Hindu majority against minority groups in India (like the series of pogroms against India’s Sikh population by the Hindu majority in 1984). So – consequently, due to my admitted ignorance of the religious beliefs of those groups and their interactions, but with my knowledge that they’re messy, as I read through the book, I started feeling that certain discomfort again.
To be clear – the scenes in question where that discomfort was coming up were scenes that were supposed to be uncomfortable – women being executed by being burned alive. The execution of prisoners by having elephants step on their heads. It’s described with a level of detail that’s clearly meant to leave the reader uncomfortable. But because of the proximity of having read She Who Became the Sun, those sequences in The Jasmine Throne left other rumbles in the back of my mind. Are these parts based on atrocities from history – real or exaggerated – or were they based on some sort of stereotype or blood libel used to justify atrocities against other groups? Are they based on stereotypes or other accounts written by the British government but which were possibly overblown to justify the perpetuation of colonial rule?
I really want to resist the urge to cross-examine the author with my interpretation of the book. However, with the field of rakes that She Who Became the Sun stepped into still so fresh in my mind, it’s almost impossible for me to come to this book without finding myself overly paranoid when it comes to rakes here. As it is, while I kind of liked the book, possibly because of that tension the book was never really able to grab me enough that I feel like I want to go back for a re-read right now.
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