Sunday, September 1, 2013

Book Review: The Serpent's Tooth by Alex Rutherford

Title: The Serpent's Truth [An Empire of Mughal # 5]
Author: Alex Rutherfordl
Publisher: Headline Review [Hachette India]
Pages: 432
Price: Rs 599
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 9/10
Format: Hardbound

I have been fascinated by Mughal era since the time I read The Feast of Roses and The Twentieth Wife, both by Indu Sundaresan. Though the cover page of this book wasn’t really drawing me to it, yet I intended to read it. Fortunately, this book starts from the time Shah Jahan is the emperor. Though I am yet to read the last 4 books in this series [this being the 5th one], because of Indu Sundaresan’s books I was aware about the story preceding this.

About the Book [from the blurb]

The new Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan reigns over a colossally wealthy empire of 100 million souls. Yet to gain his throne he has followed the savage 'throne or coffin' traditions of his ancestors - descendants of Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine. Ever since the Moghuls took India, brother has fought brother and sons their fathers for the prize and Shah Jahan has been no exception.

As his reign dawns, now is the time for Shah Jahan to secure his throne by crushing his enemies. Instead, devastated by the death of his beautiful wife Mumtaz, he becomes obsessed with building an epic monument to their perfect love - the Taj Mahal. His overwhelming grief isolates him from his sons and he does not see the rivalries, indeed hatreds, building between them. When he falls ill, civil war breaks out - ruthless, murderous and uncontrollable - and the foundations of the empire itself begin to shake.

My thoughts:

‘The Serpent’s Tooth’ is about Shah Jahan as an emperor, his ambitions to expand Mughal empire, his passionate love for Mumtaz and her untimely death, his dream of building an architectural wonder commemorating her [Taj Mahal], the intense rivalries among his sons to succeed him as the emperor, and finally Aurangzeb dethroning Shah Jahan and anointing himself as the 6th Mughal emperor of India. This book is an extremely fascinating and deeply absorbing account of a time few hundreds of years ago.  

Like his grandfather Akbar, Shah Jahan was tolerant of all religions. He had alliances with several Hindu Kings. He also had a deep understanding of architecture and thorough knowledge about various kinds of gems and jewels. He was himself deeply involved in the designing and building of the Taj Mahal. Through this book, we also get to know that as a ruler he was kind and just.

The love between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz is legendary. In an era when emperors used to have harem full of wives, concubines, slave girls; Shah Jahan was deeply attached to Mumtaz. After her untimely death during childbirth, Shah Jahan becomes aimless. In his depression and lack of interest, he could not spot the growing jealousy between his sons for succeeding him as well as starts losing his hold on his allies.  

We read about 7 of his children in this book. Dara Shukoh was the eldest son. Like his father Shah Jahan, he was open-minded and curious, with leanings towards Sufism. Jahanara was the eldest daughter, who had her mother’s courage and gentle persistence. Aurangzeb on the other hand was fanatical and extremely ambitious. He was deeply religious and intolerant of other religions. Shah Suja and Murad are the other two brothers; while Roshanara and Gauharara are the youngest sisters.

The narrative is deeply engaging and illustrative; and deftly woven around true historical facts. The author has been successful in creating vivid imagery of the battlefield as well as life in general during Mughal rule. It is an extremely well-written book and its beauty is in detailing. The conversations sound real, and the sights and sounds of the battle field come alive.  
If you are intimidated by history, let me assure you, I am one of you. Trust me; this book is extremely reader friendly. There is a map in the beginning about the extent of Shah Jahan’s empire; and also there are character names at the end, so you are saved of the need to remember characters. There are ‘Additional Notes’ at the end, where author informs you chapter-by-chapter about facts from fiction. 

I highly recommend it to every reader of historical fiction. Why only historical fiction? If you love a good story, this is for you.

[Shah Jahan reflects on finding his sons fighting for the throne]

“Now it seems it was all for nothing…the old cycle of blood, of father against son, of brother against brother, has begun again. I blame myself. I was complacent when I should have been vigilant. I believed that the rivalries that have cursed the Moghuls for generations could never happen in my family.”

Review Book courtesy: Hachette India
Image source: Hachette India

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