If we were going to be reductive and assign people to categories based on which entry in a given trilogy we like the best, I would have to cop to being very solidly an Empire Strikes Back guy. A The Two Towers guy. I have a cold, dark, shriveled soul and I prefer the second-volume grim sense that all is lost to the first-volume soaring hope—the one that follows an initial victory I already know is only one battle in an ongoing war. But still: I finished the first novel in Tasha Suri’s new Burning Kingdoms trilogy, The Jasmine Throne, imbued with that very sense of hope I like to think I’m too savvy to enjoy: hope that a tree inflicted with rot can grow healthy again; that a woman silenced can find her voice; that a nation subjugated can assert its right to its cultural traditions and its freedom.
The novel’s protagonist, Priya, begins her life as a temple child of Ahiranya. She learns to fight, is “once-born” in the living waters, and possesses a unique bond with those waters. Following the mass slaughter of her temple siblings by the invading empire of Parijatdvipa, she finds work as a servant in the house of the regent, thanks to the good graces of the regent’s Ahiranyi wife, Bhumika. Outside the walls of the regent’s house, the Ahiranyi people are rapidly falling victim to a disease-cum-effective-bit-of-very-no-thank-you-body-horror called tree rot, in which the bodies of the sufferers turn into trees, kind of. The disease's progression can be slowed with the application of sacred wood, but such wood is increasingly thin on the ground, as tree rot spreads unchecked throughout Ahiranya. The Parijati are far less interested in finding a cure, or even a treatment, for this disease than they are in stripping Ahiranya of its natural resources in order to enrich their own interests: tree rot’s links to the subjugation of Ahiranya, and the suppression of its traditional magic, seem clear.
From her position at court, then, Priya tries to use her relative good fortune to offer care to those more vulnerable than she is, seeking out sacred wood to share with beggar children inflicted with tree rot. When the disgraced Parijati princess Malini comes to live under the regent’s care, Priya finds herself closer than ever to the memories of her former life: not only is Malini imprisoned at the top of the Hirana—a mysterious structure sacred to the Ahiranyi whose very surfaces are constantly shifting (is it a building, a mountain, or a metaphor? You decide!)—but the Ahiranyi rebels have begun to grow bolder, drawing nearer and nearer to the life Priya has made for herself. Meanwhile, Malini, unwilling to sacrifice herself on a funeral pyre as her brother the emperor desires, struggles both to fight off an enforced drug haze and to rally forces that might help put her less-awful brother on the imperial throne.
A word on worlds. As her past books have already proven, and The Jasmine Throne reinforces, Tasha Suri is a writer of disconcertingly many gifts. But as a reader who can’t make pictures in her head and tends to struggle with secondary world fantasy and its many made-up worlds and places, I’ve been particularly appreciative of Suri’s gift for worldbuilding. The Jasmine Throne is no exception. Suri is a wonderfully sensory writer, with an unfailing eye for the material culture (foods, fabrics, architecture) that make a world feel real. Even better, she’s careful to root (this is a pun; please enjoy my pun as you continue reading this paragraph) her worldbuilding in character and in emotion. We learn about the tree rot almost casually, as a byproduct of learning just how soft-hearted our protagonist is, as Priya tries to find a way to help a rot-riven beggar child named Rukh. The rot is unsettling—algae-like green coloration on eyelids, tiny root growth under skin, leaves growing in place of hair—but its introduction is closely entwined with the reader’s sense of what makes Priya tick.
Nor is Priya’s act of care at the story’s opening a one-off, the kind of incident an author uses to get us on board with a protagonist. It’s fundamental to who Priya is, certainly, but it’s also part of a fundamental question that The Jasmine Throne is interested in asking: what is power, and can it be wielded ethically?
"Power doesn't have to be the way the regent and your rebels make it be," Priya said eventually, making do with her own artless words, her own simple knowledge of the way the world worked. "Power can be looking after people. Keeping them safe, instead of putting them into danger."
As we find out over the course of the book, Priya and Bhumika each possess a degree of physical and magical power unrivaled by virtually anyone else around them. They have both spent the years since Parijatdvipa arrived performing unobtrusive acts of care, finding work, food, and medical care for their countrypeople, to the best of their limited power. For a story about revolution, The Jasmine Throne is refreshingly committed to the primacy of acts of care and devotion. Softness is not weakness. Quietness is not weakness. Nor, as the above passage suggests, is physical strength the only kind of strength worth valuing.
To each of the women in her story, Suri has supplied a foil, a brother or husband or rebel, to whom acts of care seem foolish and wasteful, an antithesis to the bloody duties of power and revolution. This allows her to explore her characters’ many visions of how best to make the world better (in time-honored epic fantasy tradition, Suri switches narrators chapter by chapter, nimbly sowing plot seeds from very early on). What changes over the course of the book is the tools that lie within each character’s hands to make her vision a reality. What allies can they summon? What leverage can they exert? At times, the only possible rebellion is the simple act of survival. At other times, care, or diplomacy, or war.
None of this is to suggest that the book claims the fight for freedom can be a bloodless one. The women who emerge as the strongest powers by the end of this book are each forced to make terrible decisions; that they do not make them unflinchingly is testimony not to weakness but to their capacity for care. It’s also notable that The Jasmine Throne endorses a revolutionary vision that accounts for the logistics of success. I’m not saying anyone besides me has been sitting at home on Friday nights texting “my kingdom for a rebel who gives a damn about funding sources and supply lines,” but if that has been a going concern of yours, I rejoice to report that Tasha Suri’s rebels give a damn. Winning is easy, says The Jasmine Throne. Governing’s harder.
I would be remiss if I left the review without mentioning Tasha Suri’s talent for romance. The Jasmine Throne—perhaps as a function of being the opener in a trilogy rather than a standalone—is not quite as romance-forward as Empire of Sand (2018) and Realm of Ash (2019). Still, the burgeoning romance between Priya and Malini is superb. The reader is never quite able to get their feet under them with Priya and Malini, in the best way. Their attraction to each other is undeniable, but there are constantly other considerations vying for their attention, ranging from “does she even really like me or does she just want to use me” (survey says: both!) to “I want to make out with her again but her country is still officially subjugating my country so I guess we’ll see what happens with that first.” It’s top-notch stuff, if what you like are romances so unthinkably complicated by circumstance that you know they won’t be able to share the smallest passing touch without one or both of them being thrown into crisis about it.
The Jasmine Throne is marvelous, a testament to the scope and fun of epic fantasy at its best. It cleared my rot-riven skin, harvested my crops of sacred wood and locally farmed rice, and left me bitterly impatient for its sequel. This particular book-one hope was magical, and now I’m more than ready for book two. Bring on the pain.