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Mehrunnisa is born when her family’s fortunes are at their lowest. They’ve fled Persia and barely have enough money to make the trip to India. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. A kind stranger helps them on their way and their fortunes improve.
Mehrunnisa comes to the attention of the emperor’s favorite wife as a child. Beautiful, intelligent, and witty, her charms only increase as she grows into womanhood, so that even the heir to the throne of the Mughul Empire notices her.
I’ve struggled a little lately with a bit of a reading slump. I can usually break out of those by reading a few quick fantasies. This book should not have worked for me right now but it absolutely did.
I know very little Indian history so I didn’t know anything about this emperor, his wives, or even this period in time (early 1600s). It was tumultuous, to say the least. Sons plot against their fathers to take thrones, Portuguese Jesuits are looking for Catholic converts and exclusive trading rights, English traders are trying to establish their own trade routes, and nearby kingdoms are testing the emperor as a matter of course. And that doesn’t even include the intrigue in the zenana (What I would think of as the harem, correctly or not). My ignorance meant that I was never sure what was going to happen next so I kept listening in every spare moment, eager to see what happened next.
In many ways, fortune smiles on Mehrunnisa but I could also argue that she’s cursed. Either way, her life is never dull. The author presents her as a woman who wants to determine her own fate and who’s largely driven by love and desire. But she’s clever and calculating too. I occasionally wondered which side was governing her behavior. She was realistically complex.
The rich details, foreign setting, and unfamiliar culture of this book made me feel lost in a different place and time. I could practically smell the exotic food, hear the tinkling bangles, and feel the sweltering heat as I listened. Those same details may bog the pace down for some readers though.
Sneha Mathan’s beautiful voice and soft, musical accent made her narration outstanding. I just added every available work she’s read to my library to-read list.
Readers who want to be transported to a different time and place and who don’t mind a slow pace will enjoy this one. I especially recommend the audiobook. I’ll be listening to the rest of the series soon.
My apologies for any misspellings in this review. The wonderful thing about listening to an audiobook with unfamiliar names and words is that I know how they’re pronounced; on the flip side, I don’t know how to spell them.
If you liked The Twentieth Wife, you might also like my reviews of
- Circe by Madeline Miller
- Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran
- Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund
Buy The Twentieth Wife from Malaprop’s Bookstore in beautiful Asheville, NC or