Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese-born author, began as a newspaperman in his native Beirut then moved to France at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.
The Rock of Tanios:
This book led me through a time and place for which I had no prior knowledge even though part of my Work in Progress moves through the same geography. Twelve hundred years pass between my subject and the world of Maalouf’s novel and yet I enjoyed the immersion into 1830s Lebanese mountain village life. This story of personal passion, murder and fateful decisions slowly expands to involve the wider political context—when Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, England and France vied for control of the region. All new territory for me.
My old interest in early medieval Central Asia drew me to this book. How could I pass up a story set in 11th century Samarkand? More, please!
As with The Rock of Tanios, this dual time-period novel introduced me to epochs of history to which I’d had little prior exposure: the life of Omar Khayyam during the Seljuk Empire and the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907.
Again, some of my Work in Progress is set in Persia but five hundred years before any of the events included here.
But this is the attraction of reading historical fiction from off the beaten path. It opens up new adventures and the chance to see the world through another’s experience. Some say that stories help us develop empathy. They also help us understand ourselves.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Rock of Tanioshere and here.
You can find summaries and reviews of Samarkandhere and here.
Afterward—Long after I’d read these two novels, I realized that the author is one and the same with that of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes—the book I read way back in the early ‘90s which had such a strong effect on me. It was, in fact, one of the sparks which ignited my own slow movement towards my Work In Progress.
You can find summaries and reviews of The Crusades Through Arab Eyeshere and here.
My passions – tea and historical fiction (not opium!) – recently collided in the following two books:
For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction
Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction
I had chosen the tea history because of my general love for the drink and growing curiosity about its history and transport.
Sea of Poppies was on my radar because of my constant search for historical fiction set off the beaten path and especially stories by non-western writers.
So, what do these books have in common?
Colonialism, international trade and the early effects of globalism.
More specifically, they deal with two of the three sides of the East India Company’s trading triangle: producing opium in India, trading opium for tea in China and transporting tea across the world to the exploding tea market in Britain.
For All the Tea in China tracks botanist Robert Fortune’s efforts to steal tens of thousands of tea plants and seeds from China and set up a competitive market in the Himalayas – all to profit the East India Company.
I have long loved Victorian travelogues. I used to scour the shelves at MacKay’s in Knoxville for every book pertaining to Central Asia and the Great Game. Sarah Rose’s summation of Fortune’s journey makes me want to find his writings and read them for myself. However, in these journals, we rarely see the consequences these “adventures” have on the nationals – either as individuals or as communities.
Sea of Poppies – written from both Indian and colonists’ points of view – shows us the trauma of the populace whose subsistence farms were turned into poppy fields. Over time, the farmers’ indebtedness to the Company forced many into impoverished dependency and some to emigration as indentured servants.
One man’s adventure is another’s demise.
You can read the reviews for:
For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction – here and here.
Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction – here and here.
PS/Update: I recently stumbled upon an article from the New York Times that mentions Fortune’s brazen theft but focuses on the efforts to expand tea production from Darjeeling to Nepal. Enjoy!
As you can see from the image, I have four of the five books in this series. I do hope to catch up with the last one: Conqueror.
It has been several years since I read these stories but sometimes distance strengthens impressions.
Wolf of The Plains is by far the most memorable. When pondering character development or the influence of setting on psyche, this book often comes to mind. Iggulden immerses us into the life of a Mongol boy navigating a brutal cultural and natural environment. We walk alongside him while he establishes himself as the supreme leader of all who encounter him – starting with his own brothers. From a childhood of loss and hardship emerges the man who will conquer the world.
The series’ subplot – Genghis’ relationship with his son Joshi – is a tragedy often played out in the lives of great men. Unsure if Joshi is his own blood, Genghis never completely accepts him. (Genghis’ wife is raped at around the time of Joshi’s conception). Also, Genghis for too long delays rolling authority to his sons – clinging instead to absolute power – resulting in divisions and strife. In this I am reminded of Sharon Kay Penmen’s portrayal of Henry II, his family’s dysfunction and the ensuing fallout so brilliantly dramatized in her Plantagenet series. Both are examples of powerful leaders unable to relinquish control to the next generation.
Highly recommended for historical immersion, world/culture building, action/adventure.
It can find starred Reviews for these books on Amazon and Goodreads:
As promised in my comments on Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, I have now completed his The Garden of Evening Mists. How could I resist a story set in a Cameron Highlands tea plantation? As usual, this is not a formal review, just some observations. If, like me, you prefer to know little about a book before diving in, you might do best to leave this post until after you’ve had a go at it yourself. Yes, that is a recommendation – read it – for both story and art. This one is going to stick with me for a long time.
Now to the observations:
Overall, I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mistsmuch more than The Gift of Rain. Having read The Gift of Rain, my expectations were more in line with Mr. Eng’s work. I knew what I was getting into so I was more prepared to appreciate it and chose to read it when I was ready for it. The first half of the book is slow going but, in the second half, the layers build towards a complexity which begins to pay off.
Language – Mr. Eng’s use of poetic speech is so dense that it sometimes overwhelms the writing. These are from the first page:
He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise..
…that rain-scratched morning…
Memories…like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.
The murmurings of the house…
Most of Mr. Eng’s figurative language is stunning and seamless. It supports the dream-like atmosphere, the story of muddled memories and the gradual revelations as truth emerges. There is the occasional clunker that feels forced, drawing attention to the language rather than keeping you in the story world. But if you want to see how metaphorical writing is done, how to steep your reader’s entire sensory system into another world, I highly recommend studying Mr. Eng’s work.
Structure – The story is framed in 1st person present tense narration over a two-week period, but the bulk of the book is in 1st person past tense as the narrator reveals prior events in her life. In fact, there are three major time periods in the book: the narrator’s experience during WWII, her experiences after the war as she met and worked with her Japanese gardener/mentor, and the present as she copes with her new circumstances – all the while discovering new information about her past.
The change of tense is helpful to keep the present and past time periods separated, but I still found it challenging to know which period I was in because the locations and characters overlap. I often had to stop and remind myself of what period I was reading in order to keep things straight in my head.
There are stories within stories which add to the mystery but also contribute to the complexity of the text. By the end of the book the story is so layered I had to stop many times and think about what each new piece of information meant to the narrative; how it fit into the larger story. Every bit is important and comes together in the end but I now feel the need to go back to the beginning and at least skim through the book again in order to fully appreciate each part of the puzzle – the way you might want to re-watch a mystery movie to make sense of how each clue plays a part in the whole.
Story – I found The Garden of Evening Mists more palatable than The Gift of Rain on several levels:
Personal interest: Japanese gardens, archery, art & tea are much more appealing to me as a context than Japanese martial arts. I also enjoyed the smattering of Malaysian language throughout the text since I have retained at least that much of my Bahasa Indonesia reading skills. Since I know the words, I didn’t need the context or the clarifications provided by Mr. Eng but I doubt anyone would be confused by them. He also scatters some Dutch vocabulary throughout – and I don’t know a word of it but had no problem making sense of them in context. I think this book would be a good example of how non-English words can flavor a text without confusing or irritating the reader.
Characters: I still long for a story from the ethnic Malay experience, but this book felt more rooted in the land than The Gift of Rain. However, that book’s main character was half Straits Chinese and half English and, I believe, a large part of his vulnerability to the Japanese mentor was his own rootlessness. I had a difficult time being sympathetic to the main character in The Gift of Rainbecause I found his manipulative Japanese mentor repulsive. In The Garden of Evening Mists, I found all of the characters interesting and sympathetic even when I was led to conclude they were not all perfectly honorable.
Similarities to The Gift of Rain – Both stories revolve around an enigmatic Japanese master of something (martial arts, gardening, art) and their devastating allure to a young, vulnerable Malaya national within the context or fallout of the brutal Japanese invasion of Malaya during WWII. I can’t help but wonder what it is that draws Mr. Eng to elevate Japanese culture to this level of mystique within the hearts of the very people who were so abused by the Japanese atrocities. He seems fixated on the irony that the same culture, same individuals even, could produce such beauty while also committing such horrors on their fellow man.
But maybe that’s the point. What culture is not capable of great beauty and great savagery?
You can see reviews of The Garden of Evening Mist here and here.
Modern Sensibilities: One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is balancing the values of the reader with the worldview of characters from a distant time/place. The writer must provide the modern audience with someone to identify with even when the context is wholly other.
Colin Falconer’sSilk Roadspans the swath of geography from the Holy Land to Central Asia in 1260 AD. Writing from this distance in time and culture presents a greater than usual challenge to bridge the gap between story context and the reader.
Falconer does this by creating a female character, Khutelun, with the skills, spunk and father’s indulgence to have the freedom to live as a man – allowing for adventures and encouraging her natural leadership. This is believable because we know that Mongol women did have more clout than their western sisters at the time.
Falconer also creates a main character, Josseran Sarrazini, a Templar knight, who begins to question his Christian heritage. And, William, a Dominican friar, who represents every despicable characteristic of religious fanatics. This juxtaposition of an open-minded man who finally casts off all faith and the Evil EthnocentricCleric who never changes, seems crafted to appeal to the modern reader’s freedom of thought and to encourage the gleeful derision of all things terrible about organized religion.
I have two problems:
1) The drastic final action of the Templar doesn’t ring true. Of course, as a believer, I would say this. But I also assert so as an intelligent reader. In 1260 AD, the act of completely turning one’s back on faith, and doing what he finally does, would have been terrifying. (And I won’t even tell you what he finally does as it would be an extreme spoiler.)
Of course, it is the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it felt like a wink at the politically correct modern world.
2) Meanwhile, William, the Despicable Cleric, never learns, never grows. I admit there were moments when Falconer tried hard to humanize him; make us think William might improve, if only a little. Was that an attempt to forestall criticism of caricature? Or provide an honest picture of personal enigma? In the end, this character goes nowhere.
Again, it’s the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it was tiresome. Okay, we get it – Evil Monk. Been Done To Death.
The book is slow at times if you want all action. But if you are reading Silk Road because of an interest in the region, you’ll enjoy the descriptions even if you find yourself skimming through some of it as I did.
And, the editing is appalling. How did this happen?
On the Other Hand:
Despite my complaints, Colin Falconer has a new fan. He is a wonderful storyteller and I will definitely read more of his work. I crave well researched high adventure stories in places beyond the standard fare. This is the kind of book I love. This is the kind of book I want to write. I will forgive all for more of this. Falconer sweeps you along on roads far beyond the beaten path and immerses you into another world.
The good news is: Colin Falconer has written 40+ books. I will look for others set in times/places that appeal to me. Lot’s to choose from. It will be interesting to compare the story and editing qualities of subsequent reads with my Silk Road experience.
In the meantime, I hope Mr. Falconer will slow down enough to do some serious quality control on the editing. Maybe his production schedule is coming at too great a sacrifice.
Recommended: For action & adventure set in far off lands
While working long hours last Fall, I slowly made my way through Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali. Set in 15th Century Spain, a family of Muslim landowners cope with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista.
I am always excited to read a tale from Long Ago & Far Away. Unfortunately, this one was a struggle.
For the first half of the book, it was difficult to know which character was the protagonist. Most of this portion is back story, or story within story. Who am I supposed to care about? I nearly put it down but hung in there because of what I had already invested. I love books set in other cultures and I accept that the target audience might be more accustom to the slower pace. So, thinking it could just be me, and not wanting to miss out, I slogged on.
Then things got more interesting and focused on two characters.
Then everyone died.
Except one fellow.
And the whole thing felt like a setup for the next phase of his life. A sequel?
The book is part of the Islam Quintet – a series by Mr. Ali. But the next book is not a sequel. It’s a story about Saladin – who is not a part of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. As far as I can tell, we don’t ever get back to this story.
The problem is structure and focus. I love the idea of the book, but it meanders and then ends. Clearly Mr. Ali wants us to care about the loss of a centuries-old culture. But it’s the lives of people which draw readers in and I couldn’t care about anyone because the story is everywhere at once and therefore emotionally nowhere.
I wanted so much to love it. I may be willing to try the others in the series simply because I want them to be good.
If you have any interest in Central Asia, Afghanistan specifically, I urge you to check out a new blog that I recently discovered. It is called “Stories My Grandmather Told Me”. The About page explains:
“My grandmother was born, raised and lived most of her life in a tiny village in the central highlands of Afghanistan. We became refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. We lived in Pakistan for many years before subsequently settling in Australia.
In this blog, I bring to you the stories of my grandmother’s and our lives as told by my grandmother.”
I know nothing more than that “About” info and having read all 19 posts.
The first post was on January 4, 2015. So, whoever the writer is, they have just gotten started. I hope more people will read the blog and encourage this writer to keep going. The stories are immediate, simple and gripping.