“Beneath a Marble Sky” is the first novel for John Shors, but I would not have guessed it. His imagery is stunning, his word choice nearly flawless – I would have credited this book to a much more seasoned novelist.
The book is a historical fiction set around the building of the Taj Mahal. We have all heard the story of the king who loved his wife dearly and was heartbroken when she died, and so he created a mausoleum in her memory and caused it to be the most beautiful building on earth. Shors took that kernel of information, researched to find additional facts, and constructed a tale of love, suspense, and treachery.
Jahanara is the daughter of the king and his beloved wife, and she has seen their loving interactions every day. Even though he has a harem full of beautiful women, he rarely visits them, preferring instead to stay with his own wife. Their oldest son, Dara, is gentle and good, and will most likely take over the throne some day, but another son, Aurangzeb, is jealous of the favor Dara and Jahanara receive in their parents’ sight and wants the attention for himself. His jealousy has made him dangerous, and even as a child, his actions are full of hate.
The time has come for Jahanara to get married, and her father has arranged a husband for her. She dreams of having a marriage like her parents’, but from the first minute with Khondamir, she knows it will never happen. He’s rude, he’s filthy, and he’s brutal. She wants to leave him and return home, but her love for her father makes her stay – if she left her husband, it would disgrace her father forever.
Meanwhile, her mother is expecting again, and Jahanara is asked to be at the birth. She witnesses her mother’s death from hemorrhage, her father’s absolute grief, and then his recovery as he begins to dream of a beautiful building that will be in her honor. The architect is called, a young man named Isa, and Jahanara can’t help but find herself drawn to him. As the building is planned, the king asks Jahanara to be instrumental in the process, which gives her the chance to be away from her husband for long stretches of time.
The plot thickens as Aurangzeb’s desire to possess the throne drives him to murder and the attraction between Isa and Jahanara grows. The twists and turns of the story will keep you turning pages nearly faster than you can read them. Shors has created a vivid tale of tragedy and triumph you will remember long after you put it down. I was completely swept away.
The book is more earthy than those I usually review, and if content is a concern, I might suggest that you skip pages 49-52, the bottom of 130 to the center of 132, the top of 163, and 311 through the end of the chapter.
Be sure to join me here tomorrow for an interview with the author, John Shors.
(This book was published in 2006 by New American Library.)