I just started reading The Feast of Roses, the second book by Indu Sundaresan. My father gave me these books a while ago, and given that his taste in literature usually runs toward obscure academic tomes about long-forgotten religions and empires, I was naturally somewhat dubious.

However, I started reading Sundaresan’s first book, The Twentieth Wife, last week, and got completely sucked in. In fact I am almost glad that I was sick this week, as it gave me an excuse to sit on the couch and single-mindedly devour this book. I am even more glad that there’s a second one, because there’s nothing like devouring a book when you know that you won’t have to say goodbye to your newfound world when you turn the last page.

These books are quite simply marvelous, and exactly how historical novels should be done. The detail of her descriptions of 17th century Moghul India are exquisite, and she has clearly done extensive, painstaking research into every aspect of her character’s surroundings.

What is most impressive about this feat, however, is that her main character is a woman. At this time, and for most of human history, the average women was completely invisible, and the historical record on her daily life almost nonexistent. Granted, Mehrunissa did become one of the most famous and powerful Empresses of India, so her later life was well-documented. But Twentieth tells the story of her early years, before she became Empress.

Sundaresan’s writing thus becomes a prime example of historical detective work. She has taken what material is available, and then read between the lines to discover how her main character would have lived, what her hobbies might have been, even what she wore and where she lived. Of course the author also supplements her research with a liberal dose of artistic license, but she does it so smoothly and seamlessly that one cannot help but be impressed by both her scholarly and storytelling abilities.

This is truly historical writing at its finest. It brings history alive, it teaches without being overly pedantic, and it sets one’s imagination ablaze. In fact, being one half Indian myself on my father’s side, the romantic little girl in me can’t help but wonder if perhaps I am descended from this great Empress, with her blue eyes and sharp cheekbones.

And in the end, what good are books if they don’t make us dream?

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