Book Review: The Jasmine Throne (2021, Orbit Books)

The Jasmine Throne

by Tasha Suri

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chanced upon this in, of all places, a scifi bookstore in Sweden and was highly excited at the idea of a fantasty writer of Indian origin who has crafted a fictional world that draws from the world of South Asia – a place that has a vast and vivid pool of stories and ideas to draw from but I feel has been quite unable to break out of its own hardened molds.

The narrative is a relatively simple and possibly familiar one – which in and of itself is fine. We have two principal characters – Priya and Malini – who are respectively a palace serving maid and a princess of the most powerful empire of the known kingdoms. The Emperor is by all accounts, a despotic ruler who asserts his power through the use of fear and cultural+religious dominance as his primary tools (which I must admit, rang troublingly true to a lot of the world today) and his sister is a problem that he cannot kill outright and so he imprisons. Priya meanwhile has a history that even she seems unable to remember (traumatic amnesia?) that is directly related somehow to the Hirana temple wherein the princess is imprisoned and much of this book is Priyas journey to finding herself and to her and Malini finding each other and helping one another to break free of their prisons – be they literal or metaphorical.
There are several supporting characters like Bhumika, the Regents’ wife who shares a history with Priya that is somewhat secret for a while at least. Ashok, the leader of the rebels with his own connections to and motivations regarding the Hirana and the power hidden within. There are also the Princes Rao and Prem who are playing their own part subtly in the inter-kingdom intrigues that bubble under the surface of this first book in the series.

So that’s the bulk of the books story without spoiling anything really noteworthy. As to how I felt about it, well rarely have I read a book that has me so drastically split in my own opinions on its pros and cons.
For starters, there is no question in my mind that this is a highly imaginative book because it takes a bold chance crafting a fantasy paradigm that veers clearly away from the almost painfully familiar Judeo-Christian, northern-European-ish, Tolkien-esque tropes and Oriental-cliches that are the fantasy mainstays. It crafts the basics of a believable world that draws from the food, clothing, culture and mythos of much of South Asia – from the sarees to the way the people behave to the existence of a caste-like social division to the more fantastical elements like the Yaksa’s that are familiar to Sri Lanka. It is a world of potential and one I found quite engaging, though it was for me personally, not explored near enough for a 500+ page novel and a lot of it felt like it was teased or just skimmed, like it was explored only to the extent that served a purpose for the story or for the authors desire to describe a thing; this would be where my gripes with the editors of the book come into play.
The editing in the book feels ineffective. I don’t mean grammatically, that’s all fine. But there were far far too many instances where the prose ran on describing or over-describing things that felt like they could easily have been pruned, others where we don’t get enough information and there are some flaws in the world-building itself that could perhaps have been addressed with a keener eye from an editor or Beta reader. To put it another way: there was too much of the book where my attention was sliding away from the page, only drawn back by the core ideas that were decent and my own curiosity to know what happens.
Back to the story! The narrative is not too complex and fairly predictable at times for a fantasy adventure+romance, but on the whole it’s got enough positives to keep you curious about what happens. After what I felt was a slow start that I had to push through, it became far more engaging once the basic pieces were in place and some of the more supernatural elements came into play and the actual plots began to roll. The real challenge came as we got to the end, because this is the first novel in a series and that can be challenging – this one had a good ramp-up to get to that finale but I felt it fell short. It’s like the pieces were all there but with some re-arranging, some adjustment to the choices made and it would have been fine. As it is, I found it to be more bland and like a firecracker that fizzles.
A core challenge for me was that the main duo is not nearly as engaging as the author seems to think they are – Priya and Malini both suffer from being both over-described and at the same time, under explored. They seem a little limited in their dimensions and while some growth is there, it feels again, oddly shallow. On the other hand, Bhumika comes almost out of nowhere and became by the end my favourite character and one that we could even with the limited space given to her, having depth and nuance and growth – as also with Ashok, who is not a terribly innovative or complex villain, but he has at least a somewhat understandable motivation and character and he feels real. In effect, for me the supporting characters all felt more interesting and I actually ended the book almost wishing Bhumika had been the lead character. Even the dynamic that is dwelled on time and again between Malini and Priya felt like something out of a Y.A novel, a bit on the teenage/angsty and over-wrought side.
The other challenge for me was the world-building itself. As mentioned before, there is a nicely crafted base on which the author has built her story, but it suffers from being at times not explored enough for my liking – perhaps it was a choice to try and keep more mystery for the future installments but as a first book in a series, for me it left too many questions that could have easily been fleshed out a little more and if the choices had been made to perhaps prune back the aforementioned fluff and substituted with this kind of descriptiveness instead, the whole book might have been the richer and more engaging as a result.

There is a very nice world and a good book in here – but the bottom line for me was that I am deeply torn. There is enough skill in the author and more importantly, in her imagination, that I want very much to enjoy this world and know what else there is to it all, but the flaws in this book, the characters and the admitted effort I had to put to push through parts of it make me wonder if I’ll even try the next.

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