Title: The King’s Last Song
Author: Geoff Ryman
Release Date: September 1, 2008
Genre: Historical Fiction
Challenge: Winter Reading Challenge
Rating: 4 out of 5
From the back cover:
When archaeologists at Angkor Wat discover a book written on gold leaves, the king of Cambodia, the army, and the UN all want to get their hands on it. The golden book contains the words and wisdom of King Jayavarman VII, the Buddhist ruler who united a war-torn Cambodia in the twelfth century and, together with his enlightened wife, created a kingdom that was a haven of peace and learning.
On its way to the capital for restoration the golden book is kidnapped, along with its guardian, Professor Luc Andrade. Luckily for Luc, his love and respect for Cambodia have won him many friends, including ex-Khmer Rouge cadre member Map and the young motoboy William. Equally determined to rescue the man they consider their mentor and recover the golden book, Map and William form an unlikely bond…but William is unaware of just how closely Map’s violent past affects them all.
The King’s Last Song interweaves the ancient tale of Cambodia’s greatest king with the modern adventures of Luc, Map, and William. It soon becomes clear that Map and William are searching not only for the golden book, but also for Cambodia’s future.
When I first heard about The King’s Last Song, I immediately knew that I wanted to read it. I love learning about other cultures and histories through my fiction reading, and Cambodia is a place I don’t know much about. Plus, the description of the book lists Angkor Wat as a major locale in the novel – Angkor Wat is one of my top “places to see.” It was originally built as a Hindu temple complex in the jungles of Cambodia and was later abandoned. I think it’s one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen on paper and would love to visit it one day.
In order to appreciate the novel, it is necessary to have a very basic understanding of recent Cambodian history. Cambodia was occupied by the French for over a century and was secretly bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War. When it finally achieved its freedom from France, the Khmer Rouge took over under Pol Pot and ended up murdering about 1/5 of the country’s population in just four years. It still hasn’t recovered from this tragedy.
This is the backdrop for The King’s Last Song. It takes the reader through ancient Cambodian history as well as present-day Cambodia, in which we are able to witness the scars left on the country. While the novel is slow, it is full of details and very rich in history. Anyone interested in learning more about Cambodia should pick this novel up immediately.
The most beautiful aspect of the novel is the tribute within it to Cambodia. It is a torn country that still hasn’t fully healed from the ghosts of its past. The people are tired of war, though many have known nothing else during their long, exhausted lives. The author obviously has a great affection for Cambodia and The King’s Last Song is his attempt to tell its story to the larger world. However, it’s not just a tribute to the past; inside the novel is contained hopes for its future, for peace and prosperity.
One of the things I appreciated most about the novel was the extended afterword in the back of the book. In it, Ryman painstakingly takes the reader through the historical accuracies of his novel. As an avid historical fiction reader, I can’t help but be very grateful to him for his efforts in this area. It is always frustrating not to be aware of what is true and what is the author’s conjecture when reading historical fiction; in this case, that isn’t a problem.
I really enjoyed reading The King’s Last Song. It is richly layered, comparing past and present day Cambodia and is full of details and tidbits about Cambodian life that any reader will enjoy. It’s definitely piqued my interest in the country and I will be trying to find more books about it in the future.