A tall, yellow-haired young European traveller calling himself ‘Mogor dell’Amore’, the Mughal of Love, arrives at the court of the real Grand Mughal, the Emperor Akbar, with a tale to tell that begins to obsess the whole imperial capital.
The stranger claims to be the child of a lost Mughal princess, the youngest sister of Akbar’s grandfather Babar: Qara Koz, ‘Lady Black Eyes’, a great beauty believed to possess powers of enchantment and sorcery, who is taken captive first by an Uzbek warlord, then by the Shah of Persia, and finally becomes the lover of a certain Argalia, a Florentine soldier of fortune, commander of the armies of the Ottoman Sultan. When Argalia returns home with his Mughal mistress the city is mesmerized by her presence, and much trouble ensues.
The Enchantress of Florence is the story of a woman attempting to command her own destiny in a man’s world. It brings together two cities that barely know each other – the hedonistic Mughal capital, in which the brilliant emperor wrestles daily with questions of belief, desire and the treachery of sons, and the equally sensual Florentine world of powerful courtesans, humanist philosophy and inhuman torture, where Argalia’s boyhood friend “il Machia” – Niccolo’ Machiavelli – is learning, the hard way, about the true brutality of power. These two worlds, so far apart, turn out to be uncannily alike, and the enchantments of women hold sway over them both. But is Mogor’s story true? And if so, then what happened to the lost princess? And if he’s a liar, must he die?
~ The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
First off before I start this review, I have to say this book is an easy sell for me. I love books based on the Mughal era and when it is combined with Medici era Florence, then it would have to be a very bad book indeed for me to dislike it.
This book is a historical novel covering Mughal India, the Safavid empire of Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Renaissance in Italy and finally reaching the New World (America) – all of this in the sixteenth century. It’s a beautiful book that ties in the east and the west together in a significant point of history.
Here is a quote from the book that I think conveys the real essence of the story:
This may be the curse of human race . Not that we are different from one another, but we are so alike.
So like I said before, I love books based on the Mughal era, and I have done a lot of reading – fictional and non-fictional on it (yes, I am a little nerdy like that), and I am totally impressed with the amount of research Rushdie has done to get the facts right. I loved reading about Babar’s nomadic life and his frequent tussles with his foe Shaibani Khan, and his life before he came to establish his kingdom in India. I love how Rushdie bought Akbar’s court to life with such wonderful wit and understanding. Akbar was one of the greatest rulers of India and Rushdie has really done justice to him and his court.
Before you think that I like this book for the setting alone, let me say that the story is pretty good too. It’s a bit different in style from Rushdie’s earlier books, which can be long and rambling. This one is pretty fast paced and plot-based. Yes, there are sections where Akbar muses philosophically, but they are short and soon moved to the side for the actual story…which is the love story of the princess Qara Koz, Babar’s sister who finds love, adventure, and tragedy in a strange land.
Now, the love in Rushdie’s stories are almost always the weakest aspects of his books, so much so, that I always believed that Rushdie can’t write a good, touching love story. But, he proved me wrong with this book. The romance between Qara Koz and her Italian Argalia was lovely to read. And in the end, surprisingly touching. Although other reviewers seem to have not liked this bit, I liked the love story very much. True, there is a bit too much focus on her beauty. But hey, we are talking 16th century here where most women were valued for their looks or the dowry they could bring. So, keeping in mind the setting and the time period, I didn’t find any issues with the emphasis on her looks.
I have to admit that the story moved a little abruptly in its transition between Akbar’s court to Florence. It’s a tough transition to make but the technique Rushdie uses is very curious. He could have had better results with a straight-forward narration of the events in Florence. But instead, he makes Mogor dell’Amore narrate his story in which bits of the story are narrated by others, a narration within a narration so to speak, and it does hurt the flow of the story. That said, once I got into the flow of the events in Florence, it was hard not to stay interested. In fact, I couldn’t stop reading the book. I wanted to know the fate of the princess, I wanted to know what was going to happen to Mogor dell’Amore.
I guess that’s where the book succeeds for me. I just wanted to keep on reading more and more.
Btw, there is this interesting little tidbit in the book. Akbar for a time gets enamored with Queen Elizabeth I of England and dreams of a union with her. I don’t know if this is based in truth or not, but it was interesting to think about two great monarchs at the peak of their powers ruling a vast kingdom together. Considering that both Emperor Akbar and Queen Elizabeth were practical to the core, and unlikely to let religion influence their rule, this could have been one hell of a super-power couple.
Thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book for review.