But then I started reading it. And I was completely surprised by not only how much I liked it, but by how funny it was. Irreverent, and witty, and whimsical and a little weird, with more than a dash of gutter-humor funny that had me giggling like a fiend. At the 45% point, I was ready to call this one a 5-star book. I was loving it.
I loved Akbar, Akbar the Great, the greatness of which must be twice specified in order to merely hint at his glorious gloriousness. Him. I loved his personality, his unpredictability, his mind. I loved how he thought about things... Honestly, it is so rare for a ruler to think about the nature of his (or her) rule in terms other than 1) how to keep it, and 2) how to get more of it. I loved that he thought in the abstract, the philosophical. I vs we. All "I"s are "we"s, not just Royal "we"s. Everyone is part of a larger entity that makes them up: family, friends, community, etc.
Perhaps the idea of self-as-community was what it meant to be a being in the world, any being; such a being being, after all, inevitably a being among other beings, a part of the beingness of all things."
We enjoyed his blunt honesty too, in acknowledging that his kids, whom he loves, are royal bastards who will try to usurp his rule.
"They were little gods, the despots of the future: born, unfortunately, to rule. He loved them. They would betray him. They were the lights of his life. They would come while he slept. The little assfuckers. He was waiting for their moves."Oh, yes... We loved him. Loved.
For the first half. And then it shifted.
Then that yellow-haired guy had to show up and tell his secret that is so momentous that to tell it to the wrong person would cause the listener's death. Dun dun dunnnnnnn! Except it wasn't. The secret was... mundane. A family history that leached almost all the humor and life out of the 2nd half of the book. Not all... but enough.
Suddenly we have this new cast list, and though they try to be interesting, to me they just weren't. They didn't compare to Akbar. Recognizable names, sure, but I wasn't really feeling them despite that. I wanted to get back to "the present" and spend more time with Akbar. He made the story interesting to me. Qara Koz was... not really enchanting me.
Honestly, I don't get her allure - or, to be honest, the allure of any of the other "Oh so beautiful that one look upon her face makes men ready to just keel over and die for her" women mentioned in the story. We have one that's so perfect she's literally imaginary, but doesn't even have the decency to stop existing when her imaginer is away. We have another who is so beautiful that basking in her haughty condescension is considered a luxury, and one who is so amazingly gorgeous that everyone in town's had a share except her husband. But maybe Qara Koz is actually literally enchanting them, as opposed to just being so pretty that men fall down at her feet. I'm a little iffy on that point. That's magical realism for you.
I'm not sure how I felt about this book, overall. I wanted to love it, and for the first half, I did... but then it just got tedious to me. There's the underlying question of a woman's power and influence, but I feel a bit bothered by the fact that every woman in this book either a) had none, b) had a little that was granted by a man, c) obtained it strictly based on her looks, or d) used magic.
Another reason why I loved Akbar... he didn't want a submissive doormat of a wife... he wanted a woman that would actually think for herself and act upon her own will. In fact the main men were like this and valued more than just appearance... but appearance definitely came first and was a huge factor in their relationships with women (aside from whores). They are imperfect, I know... but I do give them credit for at least being somewhat respectable.
To shift gears a little, I will say I quite enjoyed the kind of modern feel to the narration. The story is set in the 16th century, but the language was accessible and straightforward, while at the same time being somehow more. I'm not really sure how to explain it, but it was gorgeous and easy to read and descriptive, and at times really funny, as I mentioned before.
There was also an interesting duality in this story... with the Echo and the Mirror, and the imagined-made-live theme running through both story lines. I thought that this was interesting, but it wasn't enough. There was quite a bit to enjoy in this book. I just wish that the story-within-the-story interested me more. But, in fairness, this isn't one of my favorite things to begin with. I definitely think I'll try another of Rushdie's books though.