Monday, February 11, 2013

Shors delivers Angkor

John Shors latest novel, Temple of a Thousand Faces
I was fumbling around with my own review of John Shors latest novel, Temple of a Thousand Faces, set in the time of Jayavarman 7th's Angkor in the 12th century, when the Denver Post went and beat me to it this weekend. Their review pretty much encompasses the story and I have to agree with them. It's a rattling good read, bringing to life the story of the prince, as he was then, just after his kingdom was overrun by the marauding Chams. We get to peer into the everyday life of fisherfolk on the Tonle Sap Lake as well as inside the palaces of the high and mighty, with at least three love stories weaving through the book's 500-pages. Hot on the tail of John Burgess' A Woman of Angkor, these two novels do a fantastic job of putting some meat on the historical bones of the amazing Angkor Empire, and I thoroughly recommend both of them.

A lush novel of revenge - by Sandra Dallas (The Denver Post).

John Shors lives in Lafayette, but the Colorado author's books encompass the world. His best-selling Beneath a Marble Sky takes place in India and is a love story about the building of the Taj Mahal, while his other books are set against the backdrop of the South Pacific, Thailand or Vietnam. In Temple of a Thousand Faces, Shors turns to the dazzling empire of 12th-century Cambodia to produce a novel as lush and exotic as Angkor Wat itself. Based on the tale of a war a thousand years ago, this story of an epic struggle between Khmers and Chams (Vietnamese) is filled with romance, intrigue, betrayal and battle - in short, everything you could ever want in a novel. Khmer King Jayavar, a benevolent ruler, is forced to flee when his kingdom is attacked by the Chams, whose quaint lotus-flower hats and quilted armor fail to disguise their viciousness in battle. They are led by King Indravarman, as evil a man as ever lived in the pages of literature. Deposed but not destroyed, Jayavar and his wife, Ajadevi, seek refuge in the jungle where they assemble a force of Khmer warriors and Siamese mercenaries intent on retaking the country. Since all of Jayavar's children have been killed by the Chams and she is infertile, Ajadevi insists Jayavar take a second wife so that his bloodline will survive, which is sort of unbelievable in today's world but apparently made perfect sense in 1177.

As Jayavar gathers his forces (and pursues his wife's suggestion of establishing a dynasty,) he is joined by a fisherman, his wife and two sons. One has been humiliated and nearly killed by the Chams and is eager for revenge, while his nearly blind brother has devised a plan to defeat the enemy. He confides it to Jayavar. Meanwhile, in occupied Angkor Wat, Indravarman readies for the final battle with the Khmers. A brutal man, he is ruthless not only with the captured Khmers but also with his own men, personally devising ways to torture and kill. Think tying a Cham warrior's legs to two elephants or skinning him alive. Little wonder that even his most loyal underlings are a bit nervous. One of them is Asal, Indravarman's brilliant strategist and soldier. Although he fears Indravarman will kill him when he is no longer useful, Asal is loyal. That is until the Cham king gives him the beautiful Khmer woman Voisanne. Indravarman expects such captured women to be beaten and raped, but Asal is too honorable to treat a woman this way. He falls in love with Voisanne, of course, and begins to question his king's brutality.

As if an evil king and employer isn't enough, Asal also must contend with Po Rame, Indravarman's assassin, who loves nothing more than killing and stealing the souls of those he murders. If possible, Po Rame is even more villainous than his king which tells you what a rough go of it Asal has. All this adds up to a wonderfully complex epic novel of love and lust, mystery and epic war. It's all played out against the kind of exotic background that makes Shors' grand books best sellers. Temple of a Thousand Faces, with its lush sun-lit hillsides filled with blue butterflies and exotic ruins, is just right for a cold winter's read.

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Blogger Sue Guiney said...

My review of it goes up on my blog on Wednesday. It's been a good way to get me ready for my next big trip to Cambodia. I was going to email you because although I'll be in Siem Reap at Anjali House most of the 6 weeks, I'll be heading down to PP too, this year, and it would be great to meet up. Sue

February 11, 2013 at 6:46 PM  
Anonymous Stanley Guenter said...

I have to admit I haven't been able to get past the first chapter, myself. The storyline is a little too simplistic for my taste; every Khmer is a paragon of virtue and kindness and, essentially, every modern value we today hold dear. The Cham, on the other hand, are the blackest of the black. That just strikes me as so unrealistic that I find it hard to buy into this view of Jayavarman's reign.

And what is up with the names in the book? All the "common folk" in the story have modern Khmer names, but the king and his wife are Jayavar and Ajadevi. Who are these? Perhaps these odd spellings are explained later in the book, but I'm pretty certain these characters in the book are meant to be Jayavarman VII and his consort, Jayarajadevi, and to simplify these names to Jayavar and Ajadevi betrays a total lack of familiarity with the Sanskrit language. Jayavarman's name can be split into two component parts: Jaya and varman, while Jayarajadevi splits into three: Jaya, raja, and devi. Jayavar and Ajadevi are literally nonsensical names, in that they don't make sense. And ancient Khmer royal names always made sense. I seriously doubt they had shortened nicknames that split up the component parts of the names in an illogical manner. So having to read these very odd names just irked me and didn't allow me to really get lost in the storyline.

On this note I have to also comment that I didn't like reading about "Angkor". That is a modern name, as is Angkor Wat. These should be Yashodharapura and Preah Pisnulok/Vara Vishnuloka respectively. I can understand the desire to make this more accessible to tourists who have visited Angkor, but I guess I am a stickler for accuracy when reading historical fiction.

But for me the biggest problem with the book is that the storyline of a Cham attack up the Tonle Sap and sack of Angkor, as described in Chapter 1, is now known to be modern fiction. In the recent edited volume Bayon: New Perspectives Claude Jacques and Michael Vickery, who often disagree quite strenuously with each other's epigraphic analyses and interpretations, both agree that there was no Cham sack of Yashodharapura in 1177. Rather, Jayavarman VII himself had long been living in the Cham kingdom of Vijaya and when he came to Yashodharapura he brought along Cham warriors to help him overthrow a rival Khmer king. It was pretty clear to me in reading just Chapter 1 that Shors' novel is based upon the old understanding of Jayavarman VII's reign. This is unfortunate because it means that archaeologists and ancient historians such as myself are going to have a very hard time buying into this storyline and reading all the way to the end, when Chapter 1 is so inaccurate.

Luckily for Shors, though, there aren't that many of us and the traditional view of Jayavarman VII's reign is still the generally accepted view by the majority of the public so I don't think this will affect his business. I guess this means he will have the opportunity to provide a revised version in the future, and then we'll all have to buy it and read it again!

I apologize if it seems that I am raining on this parade, but I just wanted to add the archaeologist and epigraphist perspective. Cheers, and thanks again for providing such an interesting blog.

Stanley Guenter

February 14, 2013 at 2:35 PM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

Hi Stanley,
I can understand your views. The book is aimed at a wider audience as Shors is a popular fiction author and yes he explains why he shortened the names. I think the book does a good job of breathing life into those Angkorian times, where few books in popular fiction have done before. It aint perfect for sure but like John Burgess' book, I welcome these fictional accounts as it helps widen the appeal of Angkor past the beautiful monuments that we see today.
Your comments are always welcome.

February 15, 2013 at 2:52 AM  

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