Two book reviews for the price of one. Today only.
Actually, what happened was this: I started reading Marble Sky back in April, around the same time I was reading Prose’s book on Reading like a writer. I didn’t finish the Marble Sky book until the beginning of June, and by then, my online book club had started reading the Other Boleyn Girl. So I figured I’d play a little catch-up and start reading that book while I got read to review Marble Sky. Well, I got so caught up in reading the Boleyn book, that I decided to put the two reviews together, because, the two are surprisingly similar.
Both deal with politics within royalty. Both have female protagonists that merely wish to live their lives in peace and love. Both have siblings who hunger for the throne, and who win it, but are not happy to hold it. And both are historical fiction.
Marble Sky deals with Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Being a woman who constantly looks up to her wise mother, Mumtaz Mahal, Jahanara is struggling in helping her brother Dara, more philosopher than ruler, to see the danger of their brother Aurangzeb, who is more cruel bloodthirsty and champing for the throne. After being placed in a loveless marriage, and witnessing her mother’s death in childbirth, she falls in love with the man who is the architect of building the greatest mausoleum in the world, Isa.
Jahanara’s world is full of plotting–scheming to spend time with her lover, scheming to keep Aurangzeb at arm’s length, even putting herself in dangerous situations to alleviate his hatred. She loves her parents tremendously and is heartbroken to see such strife within her own family. When Aurangzeb does grab the throne, Jahanara witnesses the downfall of her family, of Hindustan, of their entire way of life, and though she is powerless to stop it, she takes drastic steps to insure the safety of the man she loves.
Although this is a good book, there are some parts that was hard for me to read. Jahanara’s brother and the husband is quite cruel to her, doing thing that are downright torture. The fact that Jahanara willingly walks into these situations is very hard to watch, but indeed shows the strength of a very enduring woman who will do anything to protect her loved ones.
In contrast, Mary Boleyn is not a strong woman, not initially, anyway. She lives in a cloistered household where her parents see her and her siblings as commodities to do as they pleased. She is also placed in an arranged marriage, but what little love that could have eventually blossomed is squashed when Henry VIII takes an interest in her. Her parents then instruct her to forsake her marriage so she can become a plaything for the king, and enlist her siblings Anne and George to groom her into the right things to do.
Mary’s world is also full of plotting–except others do the plotting for her. She is pretty much a pawn of her family, forced out of duty to pleasure the king. Even her husband has no say, can only watch from the sidelines as his fortunes grow from his own wife being boinked by the king, who is portrayed by Gregory to be an overgrown spoiled brat, always wanting his way. At first, his desires are checked by the Queen, Katherine, who chooses to look the other way at her husband’s indiscretions while praying for his soul. But when Mary bears children, the king starts looking at her more-ambitious sister, Anne. And she isn’t content with just being a plaything. She wants to be Queen.
I have to say that I enjoyed the Other Boleyn Girl much more than Beneath a Marble Sky. Not to say that the latter isn’t a great book: Jahanara’s decisions and sacrifices had me quite enthralled. But you knew how relationships stood: Jahanara is the loving daughter. Isa is the man who loves her. Aurangzeb is the evil brother. Dara is the good brother. The characters and relationships to each other are clear cut. In the Boleyn saga, Gregory is far more subtle with her characters. There is no rape, no torture, no physical pain involved. Rather, all the turmoil in the book is more relational and emotional.
For instance, Mary’s relationship with the queen, two women trapped by the whims of the king. Because she doesn’t outright condemn Mary for taking on the interest of the king, she shows her displeasure through more subtle humiliations: when Mary gives her scarf to the king as a token during a jousting tournament, it is given to the queen by mistake. She holds up the scarf for Mary to see, then drops it to the floor in front of everyone and Mary is forced to pick it up. Yet despite knowing that the Queen dislikes her, Mary continues to serve her, looking up to her in a way that she can’t look up to her own, heartless mother. And when Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting abandon her for the more popular Anne, Mary is the only one who stays behind to serve her, partly from her own love of the queen, partly from guilt, and partly to act as spy for her uncle, who is determined to help Anne push Katherine out of the throne.
Then there is Anne herself. Viewed from her sister’s eyes, she is rival and friend, enemy and sister. Mary at one time is waited upon her, but as Anne’s popularity grows, she turns into caretaker as well, although their brother George is also in. Indeed, the three siblings, having nowhere else to turn, form a familial unit that almost borders on incestuous (and it is interesting how Gregory spins that side of George Boleyn–I came away with more of the impression that he could be another sister in a man’s body, that is until Anne starts getting very weird. But for that you have to read the book). However, the love they share, particularly between Anne and Mary, is always mixed with envy and spite. Gregory does a wonderful job in portraying Anne as a terrifying, catty character, but there is a price for her to act so; juggling her ambitions puts such a weariness in her that she only displays before Mary and George that is almost tender and sad.
Towards the end, Mary does find the strength to disobey her family and search out true love for herself. In fact, I would say that the two books almost mirror each other–both Jahanara and Mary escaping the pit their families had fallen into to find true love for themselves. And both have bitter endings, though Jahanara’s is a little more optimistic. Then again, she hadn’t seen both her siblings put to death as Mary did, and she doesn’t quite have the sense of doom that Mary has in knowing that the king has the power to do anything he wants. But while Jahanara’s ending was pretty much that for me, I hungered to know more on what’s life was like after Mary left, despairing that her sister’s only daughter will “never sit on the throne”. Good thing that Gregory wrote sequels.
So to rate these, I would give three 1/2 thrones out of five for Beneath a Marble Sky, but four 1/2 thrones for the Other Boleyn Girl. And if I ever get the chance to be queen for a day, I think I’ll pass.