The new Parijatdvipan Emperor is a tyrant and a zealot, fond of ‘purifying’ women with flame. When his rebellious sister refuses to be sacrificed, she is imprisoned. But allies are sometimes found in the strangest places, and Malini is not alone in her fear of the Emperor. Chandra’s cruelty may set the whole Empire alight.
I barely know where to start with a review of The Jasmine Throne. I’m all strangled vowels and twisted feelings and a deep-burning satisfaction that yes, actually, THIS is how you do fantasy right. But let me try to unpick why.
The Jasmine Throne starts a new series (The Burning Kingdoms) and if the themes are familiar to readers of The Books of Ambha, it’s all about the execution. Literally: we start with women being burned to death, sacrifices to an ancient tradition and to punish an imperial princess who believes the wrong brother sits on the throne. Malini is a skilled politician, hardened by her younger brother’s lifelong cruelty; burning her and her handmaidens is both a punishment for her resistance and something you get the feeling Chandra has been building up to for years.
Still, Chandra isn’t quite confident enough to set his sister on fire unless she goes consenting. When she refuses the pyre, she is banished to a temple in subjugated Ahiranya that witnessed atrocities: the immolation of the temple children. Traumatised by the death of her friends, guarded by a noblewoman who hates her, Malini will never leave a chamber scarred by smoke and flame unless she agrees to enter the fire herself. The cruelty is very much the point: she is to internalise her sins until she accepts there is only one, terrible way to be cleansed.
The inevitable truth of a patriarchy that despises women so much it can only value them after it has burned them to death is that it tends to underestimate what they’re capable of when they’re alive.
Enter Priya, a wayward maidservant who is more than she seems (because sure, there are stories where maids are just maids and must find their courage, but this is not one of those stories). She’s given to feeding orphans and tending to the rot-riven – a magical disease that slowly turns you into a tree – but her compassionate nature belies her stubbornness and secrets. Chosen to work on the Hirana – Malini’s temple prison – a sequence of unexpected events leads to her being assigned as the princess’s companion by Ahiranya’s regent.
The first half of The Jasmine Throne peels away the layers of the two main characters, revealing their past trauma and present motivations. Each is concealing her true self from the other; each needs something only the other can provide. It’s a gorgeously drawn relationship where Suri veils the characters in misconceptions whilst keeping the reader entirely clear on the deceits playing out. She is also – always – conscious of the power imbalances, playing with them ruthlessly and then explicitly confronting it. As in Empire of Sand, the result is a slow-burn attraction where questions of consent are central – and equality is central to consent. Only this time it’s queer. This, folks, is why I adore Tasha Suri.
But Malini and Priya aren’t our only points of view. While all the perspectives have a clear nexus – the question of loyalty to the Empire – few are aligned, creating endless overlapping conflicts in which you always believe that every character would cheerfully knife any of the others to achieve their goals. Malini and Rao believe in the Empire if in another Emperor’s hands; rebel Ashok wants freedom for Ahiranya at any cost; Bhumika – Ahiranyi noblewoman and the regent’s wife – hopes to find a peaceful balance; all see Priya as a tool that will help them unlock their goals. I often rail against books with too many POVs, but here I had no objections – even to voices who received only a single chapter. I loved that Suri rarely used these supporting characters to reveal some crucial bit of information, but rather to add in uncertainties or implications that increased the emotional payload as events unfolded (oh god, Chandni’s moment of reflection. Straight through the heart). Crucially, none of the main cast felt underserved, as each point of view helps develop our understanding of the others as their narratives wrap around and across one another in a thorny web.
Suri’s impressive control of pace is in evidence at every step – The Jasmine Throne never felt over-long in spite of meticulously laying the groundwork for each twist in the tale. Consequently, few developments come from left field (mileage may vary depending on how closely you read, of course), but all the ones that mattered were deeply satisfying; I relished the way revelations hooked back into hints sown previously (looking at you, Rao; damn right I was ready to leap and cheer when the moment came).
The whole is presented in a world recognisably Indian in influence but distinctly original, where Ahiranya was once a feared foreign aggressor using devastating magic to conquer the subcontinent, stalled only by the sacrifice of the Parijati mothers of flame. The Empire is a patchwork of allegiances and religions, where each fascinating glimpse persuaded me that any one of its city-states would be an awesome setting for another story. The world feels boundless – I have no doubt there’s so much left to explore.
…which sort of sums up where The Jasmine Throne left me, surfacing breathless on its further shore. If this first book moves inexorably towards open rebellion, the future can only be war. We have far from plumbed the depths of the conflicted loyalties in play – let alone begun to compass the truths of the creeping rot or the powers of the yaksa. This first book has hollowed me out (in a good way; you’ll know what I mean once you’ve read it), but I’m pretty sure it hasn’t prepared me for what Suri will unleash on us next.
I can’t wait.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. THE JASMINE THRONE is out now.