Dear Ms. Nichols,
Since I only read 148 of the 443 pages that comprise your first novel, Sunburst's Citadel, there are a number of things I'm not qualified to say about it. I can't say, for example, how much the characters grow or change over the course of the book, or whether the plot takes exciting or unexpected twists and turns in the latter two-thirds of the book. For all I know, if I'd stuck it out, I might have been rewarded with something really wonderful, and if so, that's my loss.
What I can talk about, though, are the things I liked and didn't like in the first 148 pages, and the reasons why I did not make it to page 149. What attracted me to Sunburst's Citadel was the unusual setting, medieval India, and the fact that the hero, Karim, was a Moghul and a Christian, and the heroine, Shamsi (a name that means “sunburst”), was a Rajput and a Hindu. Cultural or religious romantic conflicts often add dimension to characters, and this book, I thought, promised to be something different from the same-old, same-old.
After an intriguing opening in which Shamsi, a child and a princess, was orphaned when a Moghul prince attacked the fortress in which she was born and raised and destroyed the harem which had comprised her entire world, my hopes for the book were quickly dashed when I encountered Shamsi again, this time as an eighteen-year-old singer about to perform without her veil for the first time. Shamsi's “grandfather” Gupta, the man who adopted her as a child, had lost a bet to an innkeeper, and the innkeeper insisted that Shamsi bare her face to the world as she sang. In the audience was Karim, the hero.
In my teens I read a lot of romances set in exotic places, and while I miss those settings, that doesn't mean I want to read something that feels as familiar and predictable to me as this book did. I easily guessed what happened next. Karim was captivated by Shamsi's face and voice. The innkeeper insisted that Shamsi pay off Gupta's debt with her body. Karim came to Shamsi's rescue only to want her for himself.
Perhaps I've read too many of these kinds of books. But it seems to me that the characters in this book are somewhat cliched and not all that realistic. Shamsi is beautiful and spirited, and a virgin despite the fact that she has lived for years as an itinerant singer of the lower classes, that she is of an age when (as Gupta thinks at one point) most women are already married with children, and that almost every man who lays eyes on her finds her desirable.
Karim is handsome and successful as a leader of Moghul soldiers who works for the prince who attacked Shamsi's family's stronghold. He desires Shamsi, but alternately likes her and mistrusts her, because she is female, and yes, his mother betrayed him so he thinks women are not to be trusted. At one point, Shamsi almost ends up sleeping with him on the pretext of a courtesan so that he won't think she is a horse thief. Another time, he gets angry and forces a kiss on her. But, this book having been published in the twenty-first century and not the eighties, he's instantly contrite.
Something that troubled me was that despite the Indian setting, Karim and Shamsi were both light-skinned. Karim's father was from “west of Constantinople” while Shamsi had inherited her mother's unusual blue eyes. In contrast, the innkeeper who wanted to rape Shamsi is described as “a fleshy man with a swarthy complexion” and as having “the pungent smell of body odor.” Right there I almost stopped reading.
I kept on, though, mostly because I wanted to feel that I'd given Sunburst's Citadel a fair shake. The section I read could have been subtitled “The Perils of Shamsi” as she is nearly raped, killed and kidnapped but Karim saves her more than once. I can guess that the prince who laid siege to her family's fortress is an evil villain who likely plays a role in Shamsi's life in the later sections of the book, too.
Although the rescue fantasy is not my favorite, it has worked for me on occasion, in books that used it to explore the psyches of their characters. And that is what was missing for me here, more subtle or astute exploration of character. Shamsi and Karim's differing religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds could have been great vehicles for revealing the depths of who these people were, but in the first 148 pages at least, these went almost completely unexplored.
Sunburst's Citadel did have some strengths. There were moments in which a little humor sprang between Karim and Shamsi and I began to care a bit about their relationship. And though I would have liked more complexity to the prose, I appreciated the fact that your writing was always clear. Here and there were some strong descriptions, such as this one:
It had been a long day's travel, bumping over the rutted road in the aging ox-cart. The rocky country, sparsely dotted with trees, stretched out interminably before her. Distant watercourses were outlined with thin ribbons of green.
There is also a haunting flashback in which Gupta remembers how he found the child Shamsi singing funeral songs to the charred remains of her dead mother. It's a powerful scene, the kind of thing I would have liked to read more of.
Had the characterization in Sunburst's Citadel gone deeper, and were it not for the ethnic stereotyping and the cliches, I might have read further. As it was, my impatience rose to the fore, and I give it a DNF.