Sunday, August 19, 2007

Taj: The Woman and the Wonder by Sandra Wilson

Taj brings to life the fantastic story of the Taj Mahal and the wealthy Mughal Empire. Wilson skilfully weaves together a dazzling story of the royal courts and harems of 15th century India.

Shah Jahan, heir to the throne, is betrayed by his ruthless stepmother. The loss of his father's adoration, rebellion, battles, and banishment that follow are bearable only because of the staunch support of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal, built for her, is both a remarkable example of Shah Jahan's architectural legacy and a physical symbol of the intense love he shared with his wife.

Given the number of historical fiction books that are out about the same characters over and over again, one would think that there must be no unknown stories out there to be discovered and written. When I think about it though, it surprises me that there aren't more books around about the love story that inspired the creation of one of the most well known monuments to love on Earth - the Taj Mahal. When I was offered this book to review, I jumped at the opportunity to read some historical fiction with a different setting. Then I read The Temple Dancer, so instead of it being a place that I had never read about before, it turns out that I read two books set in India within a couple of months. Luckily, the two stories are very distinct and both enjoyable.

The book opens with Shah Jahan (who before coming to the throne was known as Prince Khurram) on his deathbed, looking out towards the Taj Mahal. Jahan has been under house arrest for several years, held captive in a gilded palace by his son who usurped the throne. As he gazes at the monument that he built to his wife, we are taken on the journey back through his life, back to the time he first met his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, on their wedding day. We share their lives as they love and support each other through the triumphs and the trials of being a member of the ruling family.

Khurram has long been the favoured son of his father Jahangir, the son who has been groomed from very early in his childhood to be the next emperor. Not only is he suave and handsome, but he is a gifted military leader, earning the blessings of his father as he goes to war, and as he returns from war showering his father with gifts and glory. No matter where he goes, Khurram is always accompanied by his wife, Mumtaz, and they are devoted to each other.

As in every Royal court though, there is always scheming and plotting afoot, and this time it comes from close to the Royal throne. Jahangir's wife, Nur Jahan, has long been the hidden power behind the throne, and she is ambitious for more power. As Khurram's triumphs increase, it becomes clear to Nur Jahan that she is not going to be able to manipulate Khurram as easily as she has been able to manipulate his father and so she decides that steps need to be taken to ensure that another becomes the emperor's heir. And so begins a series of betrayals and manipulations designed to drive a wedge between son and father, niece and aunt, friend and foe.

This book rather neatly divides itself into two parts - the first is about Khurram and the struggles that he has to claim his destiny, and the second part focuses on his grief after Mumtaz dies in childbirth, and his decision build the Taj Mahal, a beautiful monument to his love for his wife. In the second part of the novel, there is a lot of detail about the design and about the care that was taken not only in building but also in the painstaking processes used to decorate the building. The author manages to convey all this information without losing too much of the pacing and flow of the earlier parts of the novel. While the two parts are quite distinct they are very cohesive, and together, form a really story.

I have never really been all that interested in India, but after reading two books about India recently, I am thinking that I might be going out of my way to try and find more fiction set there in the future.

You can find out more information about this book at the author's website, and the book can be purchased from Amazon.

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