Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Kings Last Song by Geoff Ryman

In a field in Cambodia the find of a lifetime is uncovered during an archaeological dig. It is the memoir of Cambodia's greatest king, preserved on sheets of gold for centuries. Cambodia is in turmoil, still reeling from the civil wars that have torn the country apart, and the massacres by Pol Pot. The treasure is stolen and the director of the excavation kidnapped. A young moto-boy and an ex-Khmer Rouge solider, brought together by their concern for the dig director, join forces to try and recover the memoirs. Yet with such opposing backgrounds and in a country on a knife edge their quest is in jeopardy before they even start. They must overcome their pasts and fight for a brighter future for their beloved country.

The book is set in multiple time frames in Cambodia, from the present day, to the 12th century of Jayavarman, to the memories of Luc and Map over the last 40-50 years. The book centres on the violent past of the country, not only in the past century but also in the 12th century. Cambodia is a country still struggling to come to terms with itself and re-build itself. Most of the characters are Cambodian and reflect the different backgrounds, from Map the ex-Khmer Rouge soldier who switched sides to William, a young man orphaned by the fighting, to Pich, one of the leaders of the opposition, ruthless and intelligent but fighting for a better future for Cambodia. There are also the odd Vietnamese characters and of course the French dig director to help show other characteristics of the country.

The inclusion of a story running parallel to the main narrative, centuries before the present day is an interesting device. The violence and turmoil of this story seems to show that the events of the most recent century are not new or indeed unique. It tells the story of a king striving to obtain peace but also, towards the end, yearning for power. It also shows that humans can never be flawless. We can all have good intentions but there will be times when we go against these.

Although the story was readable it didn't grab me as it has done others who recommended the book to me in the first place. I know nothing of this history of Cambodia and although have heard the names 'Pol Pot' and 'Khmer Rouge' I only know they were involved in genocide. I know absolutely nothing beyond that and I think that meant I got far less out of the story than I should have done. I admit I probably know more about Cambodia now that I did before I read the book, but still not enough to appreciate the nuances of the book. It has made me wish to read up a bit more about it though, so perhaps it has served one of Ryman's aims when writing the book!

It is quite clear that Ryman is in love with Cambodia. Despite the misery and the violence in the book there is a strand of hope running throughout it. Hope and desire to make Cambodia a better place. To see the country great once more. By the end of the book you sincerely hope that one day the characters will succeed in their quest.

This is definitely a book for anyone with an interest in Asia, particularly Vietnam & Cambodia. It is a book written in the hope that things will improve. It's certainly not a tourist travel novel, written with the sole intention of getting you to visit and spend money. It is definitely something that should be read if you want to learn about the country and the people who live there. It is meant to highlight the problems that the country faces but it does not suggest that tourism and foreign intervention will cure them.

*3 stars*

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