The death of Shah Jahanís Exalted One of the Palace, Empress Mumtaz Mahal, in 1631 is the catalyst for Sundaresanís powerful tale of the conception of the Taj Mahal and the rivalry of the Shahís sons for the throne. The ruler of the Mughal Empire is devastated by the death of his wife after the birth of their fourteenth child, and it is only the creation of her magnificent tomb that offers the grieving man solace. Having killed all his living male relatives to secure the throne for himself, the formerly pragmatic Shah is reduced to a distraught and withdrawn widower to the detriment of his kingdom. With four sons, the dynasty is secure, but the political machinations behind the scenes offer a glimpse of the ruthlessness of those who claim the throne.
Although the newest daughter, born at her motherís demise, is of little consequence in this riveting and exotic tale, the Shahís two older daughters are caught up in a rivalry that poisons their relationship, each standing behind a chosen brother to succeed their father. At seventeen, Jahanara is her fatherís favorite, the one on whom he depends after the loss of his beloved. Suddenly plans for Jahanís marriage to Mirza Najabat Khan are put on hold, the young woman stepping into her motherís footsteps to fill the void in her fatherís life and make the critical political assessments he is too grief-stricken to make.
But fourteen-year-old Roshanara covets the same man for herself, a fact that creates a dangerous schism between the sisters that affects any close relationship they might have had. While the Emperor is consumed with the elaborate plans for the grand tomb known as the Taj Mahal, the siblings fracture into two factions, Jahanara supporting Dara, the oldest son, and Roshanara behind a younger, more ambitious brother, Aurangzeb.
Alternating chapters between the building of the Taj Mahal and the politics of the succession, the author paints a vivid picture of the demands on Jahanís life, her fatherís unwillingness to let her go, her passion for a man she is not allowed to marry and the devious actions of a sister who would have Mirza Najabat Khan for herself, no matter the damage to Jahanís heart or reputation. Behind the walls of the zenana, we learn the subtleties of politics, the seething ambitions of sons whose father has yet to relinquish power and the sacrifices expected of royal daughters with limited choices.
Jahanaraís life is constricted yet bold, loyal yet tempered by a passion that allows her to seek love in the forbidden. While the Shah builds his monument to the dead, his sons and daughters make irrevocable choices with far-reaching consequences. While foreign religions seek inroads to the great Mughal Empire, the distracted Shah ignores the threat at his own risk. It is Jahan that is the star of this novel, fit for the throne were she not a woman but destined by fate to bridge the love of a father and the man who holds her heart. With exquisite detail, Sundaresan relates a tale fraught with emotional complexity, giving voice to the women behind the ruthless men who rule a besieged Mughal Empire.