In the Readers Guide in the back of Beneath a Marble Sky, author John Shors writes that he visited in Taj Mahal in 1999 and became interested in the story behind the building’s construction. Upon realizing that no one in the West had written a historical fiction account of the building of the Taj, he decided that this was a story that needed to be told. I know next to nothing about Mughal India, but a quick visit to Wikipedia gives me the sense that Shors doesn’t know much more than I do, or if he does, he chose to ignore the true story in writing his novel.
To give Shors credit, he does state in the Author’s Note that he took some liberties with the characters and events, but these liberties turn what appears to be a fascinating, complex story into a tired, predictable romance. Now I don’t mind the occasional speculative historical fiction that goes against the usual interpretation of events, but in order for that kind of thing to work, the author has to write about something that historians are not 100-percent sure about (the virginity of Elizabeth I, for example). In Beneath a Marble Sky, Shors abandons what appear to be undisputed facts in order to tell the kind of story he wants to tell.
The narrator of Beneath a Marble Sky is Jahanara Begum Sahib, daughter of the emperor of Hindustan. Jahanara’s father built the Taj Mahal in honor of his beloved wife, Jahanara’s mother. The novel tells of the construction of the Taj as well as Jahanara’s brothers’ fight for control of the empire. There’s plenty of potential for drama and no doubt enough holes in the history for Shors to find plenty of scope for the imagination. The possibility of a romance involving Jahanara and the architect who built the Taj is the kind of thing that, even if unlikely, would probably be difficult to contradict absolutely, so building a story around that possibility seems like a fine choice for Shors. But to contradict known history to make that love story more dramatic is irresponsible. For example, as far as I can tell, it’s known that Jahanara didn’t marry, but placing Jahanara in a loveless, brutal marriage ups the risk of the romance with Isa the architect, so that’s what Shors does, and he does it without even giving a nod to the fact that this goes against the known history.
Even more irritating is how Shors simplifies the history. The people involved are all either wholly good and honorable or wholly evil, and good usually means having modern enlightened values. Of course all of the good guys would set their slaves free at the first possible opportunity, although they are such good people that the slaves refuse to leave their service (convenient, huh?). And of course the bad guys beat every woman they see and hate everyone whose beliefs are different. In Shors’s version of Hindustan, there are no shades of grey at all. In reality, the situation was no doubt more complex; it would have to be what with it involving real people and not the cardboard cutouts Shors gives us. Is a story in which Jahanara eventually serves as first lady to her despotic brother Aurangzeb too difficult for Shors to tell? Did he not even bother to find out that little piece of history? (Seriously, it’s right on Wikipedia.) One wonders if he just thought he could get away with shoddy research because most Westerners are ignorant about Indian history. And since he got published and the book has sold well, I guess he did.
Of course, some readers may not give two figs about historical accuracy, but even if this book were accurate, I wouldn’t have found it satisfying, except perhaps as a guilty pleasure. It’s not particularly artfully done, and it’s very predictable, but if you’re itching for some dramatic romance that doesn’t require much thought, this might do the job.