The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri (Orbit 978-0-316-53851-0, $16.99, 576 pp, tp) June 2021.
If you’ve heard The Jasmine Throne described as ‘‘morally grey lesbians setting an empire ablaze,’’ then you already understand the first reason to pick up the first book of the Burning Kingdoms trilogy. Told through several characters, The Jasmine Throne is an epic Indian-inspired fantasy centering love, thorny relationships, and an empire’s stranglehold on generations.
There are plenty of villains in this story, but the big bad is Emperor Chandra, a fundamentalist ruler and brother to Princess Malini, who unfortunately enjoys seeing things burn. Among his list of things to burn: innocent women, entire cities and cultures, and his own sister, if it means preserving his rule. After Malini refuses to undergo the a brutal (and hardly consensual) ritual with her ladies in waiting, Chandra exiles Malini to the Hirana, a decaying temple that was once filled with temple children – powerful young people with extraordinary gifts. Here, she is subjected to a torturous death sentence of poisoned wine and bedtime stories of fire.
At least, until Priya enters the picture.
Priya is a simple maidservant who was born in the Hirana. Despite going through sacred rituals to gain her powers, Priya keeps her head down and does as she is asked. Occasionally, she goes out of her way to help children struck by the mysterious rot disease that slowly turns them into trees and flowers, but she never reveals her gifts. Only Lady Bhumika knows of her powers. That is, until a rebel of the Ahiranya attacks Priya in the temple and Malini witnesses her true strength. Despite Malini’s deteriorating state, she leverages Priya’s help to escape the Hirana and dethrone her brother, by any means necessary. Romance quickly follows, as the two women rely on one another to escape their fates, and rediscover relationships and desires they sought to bury.
Another reason to love The Jasmine Throne is for its seemingly contradictory characters and unblinking gaze into morality and rage. Priya and Malini are both deeply angry and hurt people (full disclosure: I’m not one to read a fantasy novel about two well-adjusted, level-headed people falling in love). Like real life, hurt people tend to hurt other people, and Priya and Malini’s desire for one another only complicates that dynamic. Add deeply misunderstood spiritual practices into the mix, unwanted ghosts from the past, and the mysterious but respected yaksa, and you have a complex web of problems that make for a well-crafted novel. The desire between Malini and Priya is intense in all the right ways. One example: ‘‘Now that she knew Malini dreamt of fire, Priya began to dream of water.’’
Yet despite their wishes, no character acts as a moral compass in this story, and no one balances one another out. There is no perfect mentor or wise sage that guides our characters to make the right decisions. This is a cast of good and bad people who are okay with using terrible means for uncertain ends. Among all the characters, Lady Bhumika is a clear standout as a woman of all forms of strength, and clearly more at peace with her moral compromises than her younger counterparts. Aditya is also a close favorite, even if he does not make frequent appearances – his frustratingly slow, spiritually-inclined approach to life and death was a character flaw that I typically see written as a strength. To see it be both a flaw and a strength made me admire Suri’s character-writing skills that much more.
Among other things Suri excelled in, the scenic details were intimate and richly written. Flowers are a common motif in the novel – both the thorns and wonderful fragrance they create are never purely good or bad omens. Each page almost has a fragrance to it. From the jasmine petals that line pyres to the sweet wine laced with drugs, Suri maintains an intense, vivid atmosphere throughout the novel.
The magic system in this novel is something to behold. Rooted in ritual water immersion practices, nature spirits, and astrology, the magic and spiritual energy that moves throughout each character is understood to be a reality of life within each culture in The Jasmine Throne universe. Suri is an intense writer, and I’m thankful for that – like her characters, each page speaks without hesitation or uncertainty. Suri has crystal-clear intent and never shies away from tension and contradictions. Flowers are a sign of sickness, heirs to the throne reside in temples, and princesses don’t get to wear crowns until war is on the horizon. Family tensions and dramas are frequently centered in the book, and most of this tension is explored through dialogue. While I would have also enjoyed scenes written mostly through action, the dialogue was fast-paced and streamlined enough that it held my attention for most of the novel.
The opening to the Burning Kingdoms trilogy, The Jasmine Throne is not for the light-hearted reader – it’s an intense read full of violence, desire, and greedy flames stoked by unstable people.
Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.
This review and more like it in the September 2021 issue of Locus.
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