as salaamu alaykum,
I finished reading this book a while ago... I'd give it 3 stars (out of 5) among fiction written by non-Muslims. It's an adventure novel that brings you straight into British India and really makes you feel like you are part of it, the intrigues of the Indian princes's courts, the British soldiers compounds and their love/hate relationship with the 'natives', the imagery of India, mountains, rivers, the desert, the heat etc... and the story line is interesting... The constant struggle of the main character, Ash, to find his real identity, British by blood but Indian in his soul, makes it a deeper novel than just a love story. At the same time, the love story is great, and if you just skip over about two pages, the whole thing remains cool and G-rated
My major complaint which knocks two stars out of the five is the complete hack job the author does on the religions of India. With the exploration of Ash's identity comes his exploration of religion, namely Hinduism and Islam and his eventual rejection of both for their seeming defects/prejudices. Basically, Hinduism is an easy target with its strict discriminatory caste system and its misogynistic traditions like the setti, where a widow throws herself on the funeral pyre of her husband; but the charges against Islam, and Ash's turning away from it were a little bit strange to me and something of a stretch. (Interestingly enough, Christianity seems to be spared any such analysis, and the only time it's discussed is in a short few pages where the idea of the trinity is explained using a descriptive example and in a positive light). A troubling scene for me was towards the end of the novel when Ash stands behind a Muslim friend, Zarin, during fajr prayer in order to imitate his movements (something he's done many times in the past, as someone who has engaged in and experimented with the practices of many different religions). His friend turns to him in an annoyed way and tells him not to do that. Ash feels hurt by this, and in a few short paragraphs dismisses Islam completely, saying "the look on Zarin's face explained many things: the Mogul conquest of India and the Arab conquest of Spain, and all the many Holy Wars - the Jehads waged in the name of Allah - that have drenches the long centuries with blood... it had thrown a white light on... the fact that religion had not brought love and brotherhood and peace to mankind, but, as was promised, a sword." I understand that the author wishes to show that Ash was turned off by all religions, but there was no incident or occurence that happened in the novel that should have turned him off of Islam. All of the Muslim friends he had were quite good to him and did him no harm. So it was odd to find Ash turning so resolutely away from Islam, with what was obviously an injection from the author's own feelings instead of from the character's own experiences!
In the end, in something similar to the film 'Kingdom of Heaven', Ash choses to make up his own religion.
From a practical perspective it's quite amusing for a person to think that they are somehow free from the prejudices, inclinations, and skewed perspective that they find so apparent in the rest of the world.
Another negative was that the last like 150 pages of the novel were completely unnecessary for the story line, a very very VERY detailed description of a battle fought by the 'guides' (British soldiers) and really showed the author's love and bias towards the British military. I think it really took away from the novel and should have been edited out.
In any case, what I really loved is that I felt like I got to discover a lot of India through the book. A lot of things take place in a palace called the 'Hawa Mahal' which I thought was fictional until I heard people talking about it on a recent trip to Pakistan! It gives me a desire to travel to India and see some of the beautiful, historical and interesting places mentioned in the novel.
salaam and happy reading