The Glass Palace

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Brilliant and impassioned, The Glass Palace/i> is a masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh, the gifted novelist Peter Matthiessen has called an exceptional writer. This superb story of love and war begins with the shattering of the kingdom of Burma and the igniting of a great and passionate love, and it goes on to tell the story of a people, a fortune, and a family and its fate.
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The Glass Palace

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Brilliant and impassioned, The Glass Palace/i> is a masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh, the gifted novelist Peter Matthiessen has called an exceptional writer. This superb story of love and war begins with the shattering of the kingdom of Burma and the igniting of a great and passionate love, and it goes on to tell the story of a people, a fortune, and a family and its fate.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
When you heave your final sigh and turn the last page of Amitav Ghosh's new novel, The Glass Palace, you feel as if you've travelled for 100 years on foot, through the most distant and lush lands on the globe. The Glass Palace is as close as a person tucked cozily into an armchair on a rainy day can get to the rubber plantations of Malaysia, the teak forests of Burma, and the bustling city streets of Rangoon and Singapore, bearing witness to the demise of the Burmese monarchy and the rise and fall of the British empire.

A stately and vibrantly detailed family saga set in south-central Asia against the tumultuous backdrop of the 20th century, The Glass Palace is the story of Rajkumar, an Indian shop boy orphaned in Mandalay, who, on the eve of the 1885 British invasion, falls in love with Dolly, a beautiful handmaiden to the Queen of Burma. The conquering British send Burma's King Thebaw and his loyal court, including the young handmaiden, into exile in remote India. Rajkumar, left behind in Burma, is adept at working the new colonial system, and he manages to build a thriving lumber business in the growing teak trade.

Elegantly dressed in English clothes, Rajkumar sets off to India to find Dolly, the only woman he has ever loved. The long years in exile have devastated the royal family, leaving Dolly as their only servant. Through the wiles of the colonial administrator's wife, Uma Dey, Rajkumar wins an audience with Dolly and convinces her to return to Burma and marry him. She agrees, and shortly after her departure everything falls apart. The royal family is embroiled in scandal, the administrator commits suicide, and Uma, grieving more over the absence of her dear friend Dolly than over her husband's death, eschews the traditional life of an Indian widow and goes abroad, where she becomes a revered leader of India's burgeoning independence movement. And this is only the beginning. The story of Uma, Dolly, Rajkumar and their children, nieces, and nephews -- and their children's children, nieces, and nephews -- takes us from the rubber boom of the industrial age to the front lines of World War II, from India's struggle for independence to Burma's fall and its transformation into Myanmar under a military dictatorship.

"In the five years it took me to write The Glass Palace," recounts Ghosh, "I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand." Inspired by the legends of his own ancestry, Ghosh's massive research makes for a wealth of detail. The Glass Palace is at once a gargantuan history, a family saga, and an adventure story. It is so richly and compassionately rendered you come to feel you are somehow part of its vast extended family whose story finds its humble origins in two orphans standing innocently on the threshold of the 20th century.

Minna Proctor is a writer and translator. She lives in New York.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ghosh's epic novel of Burma and Malaya over a span of 115 years is the kind of "sweep of history" that readers can appreciate--even love--despite its demands. There is almost too much here for one book, as over the years the lives and deaths of principal characters go flying by. Yet Ghosh (The Calcutta Chromosome; Shadow Lines) is a beguiling and endlessly resourceful storyteller, and he boasts one of the most arresting openings in recent fiction: in the marketplace of Mandalay, only the 11-year-old Indian boy Rajkumar recognizes the booming sounds beyond the curve of the river as English cannon fire. The year is 1885, and the British have used a trade dispute to justify the invasion and seizure of Burma's capital. As a crowd of looters pours into the fabled Glass Palace, the dazzling throne room of the nine-roofed golden spire that was the great hti of Burma's kings, Rajkumar catches sight of Dolly, then only 10, nursemaid to the Second Princess. Rajkumar carries the memory of their brief meeting through the years to come, while he rises to fame and riches in the teak trade and Dolly travels into exile to India with King Thebaw, Burma's last king; Queen Supayalat; and their three daughters. The story of the exiled king and his family in Ratnagiri, a sleepy port town south of Bombay, is worth a novel in itself, and the first two of the story's seven parts, which relate that history and Rajkumar's rise to wealth in Burma's teak forests, are marvelously told. Inspired by tales handed down to him by his father and uncle, Ghosh vividly brings to life the history of Burma and Malaya over a century of momentous change in this teeming, multigenerational saga. (Feb. 6) Forecast: Novels by Indian authors continue to surge in popularity here, and this title not only ranks among the best but differs from the pack for its setting of Burma rather than India. Backed by a 6-city author tour, advance blurbs from Peter Mathiessen and the British reviews of the novel, plus a Fiction at Random promotion, this book should be read widely and with enthusiasm stateside. Rights have been sold in Germany, the U.K., France, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Spain, India and Latin America. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In an industry not known for risk-taking, the publisher is to be congratulated for offering Ghosh (The Calcutta Chromosome) a contract on his as-yet-unwritten novel. Set primarily in Burma, Malaya, and India, this work spans from 1885, when the British sent the King of Burma into exile, to the present. While it does offer brief glimpses into the history of the region, it is more the tale of a family and how historical events influenced real lives. As a young boy, Rajkumar, an Indian temporarily stranded in Mandalay, finds himself caught up in the British invasion that led to the exile of Burma's last king. In the chaos, he spies Dolly, a household maid in the royal palace, for whom he develops a consuming passion and whom years later he tracks down in India and marries. As their family grows and their lives intersect with others, the tangled web of local and international politics is brought to bear, changing lives as well as nations. Ghosh ranges from the condescension of the British colonialists to the repression of the current Myanmar (Burmese) regime in a style that suggests E.M. Forster as well as James Michener. Highly recommended, especially for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1//00.]--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“An absorbing story of a world in transition, brought to life through characters who love and suffer with equal intensity.”
—J. M. Coetzee

“There is no denying Ghosh’s command of culture and history....[He] proves a writer of supreme skill and intelligence.”
—The Atlantic Monthly

“I will never forget the young and old Rajkumar, Dolly, the Princesses, the forests of teak, the wealth that made families and wars. A wonderful novel. An incredible story.”
—Grace Paley

“A rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland— a literary territory that is as resonant now, in our globalized culture, as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A novelist of dazzling ingenuity.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375501487
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/6/2001
  • Edition description: 1st U.S. Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.67 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and spent his childhood in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and northern India. He studied in Delhi and Egypt and at Oxford and taught at various Indian and American universities. Author of a travel book and three acclaimed novels, Ghosh has also written for Granta, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Observer. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1
There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven — not an authority to be relied upon.

The noise was unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls. At times it was like the snapping of dry twigs, sudden and unexpected. And then, abruptly, it would change to a deep rumble, shaking the food-stall and rattling its steaming pot of soup. The stall had only two benches, and they were both packed with people, sitting pressed up against each other. It was cold, the start of central Burma's brief but chilly winter, and the sun had not risen high enough yet to burn off the damp mist that had drifted in at dawn from the river. When the first booms reached the stall there was a silence, followed by a flurry of questions and whispered answers. People looked around in bewilderment: What is it? Ba le? What can it be? And then Rajkumar's sharp, excited voice cut through the buzz of speculation. "English cannon," he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. "They're shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction."

Frowns appeared on some customers' faces as they noted that it was the serving-boy who had spoken and that he was a kalaa from across the sea — an Indian, with teeth as white as his eyes and skin the color of polished hardwood. He was standing in the center of the stall, holding a pile of chipped ceramic bowls. He was grinning a littlesheepishly, as though embarrassed to parade his precocious knowingness.

His name meant Prince, but he was anything but princely in appearance, with his oil-splashed vest, his untidily knotted longyi and his bare feet with their thick slippers of callused skin. When people asked how old he was he said fifteen, or sometimes eighteen or nineteen, for it gave him a sense of strength and power to be able to exaggerate so wildly, to pass himself off as grown and strong, in body and judgment, when he was, in fact, not much more than a child. But he could have said he was twenty and people would still have believed him, for he was a big, burly boy, taller and broader in the shoulder than many men. And because he was very dark it was hard to tell that his chin was as smooth as the palms of his hands, innocent of all but the faintest trace of fuzz.

It was chance alone that was responsible for Rajkumar's presence in Mandalay that November morning. His boat — the sampan on which he worked as a helper and errand-boy — had been found to need repairs after sailing up the Irrawaddy from the Bay of Bengal. The boatowner had taken fright on being told that the work might take as long as a month, possibly even longer. He couldn't afford to feed his crew that long, he'd decided: some of them would have to find other jobs. Rajkumar was told to walk to the city, a couple of miles inland. At a bazaar, opposite the west wall of the fort, he was to ask for a woman called Ma Cho. She was half-Indian and she ran a small food-stall; she might have some work for him.

And so it happened that at the age of eleven, walking into the city of Mandalay, Rajkumar saw, for the first time, a straight road. By the sides of the road there were bamboo-walled shacks and palm-thatched shanties, pats of dung and piles of refuse. But the straight course of the road's journey was unsmudged by the clutter that flanked it: it was like a causeway cutting across a choppy sea. Its lines led the eye right through the city, past the bright red walls of the fort to the distant pagodas of Mandalay Hill, shining like a string of white bells upon the slope.

For his age, Rajkumar was well travelled. The boat he worked on was a coastal craft that generally kept to open waters, plying the long length of shore that joined Burma to Bengal. Rajkumar had been to Chittagong and Bassein and any number of towns and villages in between. But in all his travels he had never come across thoroughfares like those in Mandalay. He was accustomed to lanes and alleys that curled endlessly around themselves so that you could never see beyond the next curve. Here was something new: a road that followed a straight, unvarying course, bringing the horizon right into the middle of habitation.

When the fort's full immensity revealed itself, Rajkumar came to a halt in the middle of the road. The citadel was a miracle to behold, with its mile-long walls and its immense moat. The crenellated ramparts were almost three storeys high, but of a soaring lightness, red in color, and topped by ornamented gateways with seven-tiered roofs. Long straight roads radiated outwards from the walls, forming a neat geometrical grid. So intriguing was the ordered pattern of these streets that Rajkumar wandered far afield, exploring. It was almost dark by the time he remembered why he'd been sent to the city. He made his way back to the fort's western wall and asked for Ma Cho.

"Ma Cho?"

"She has a stall where she sells food — baya-gyaw and other things. She's half Indian."

"Ah, Ma Cho." It made sense that this ragged-looking Indian boy was looking for Ma Cho: she often had Indian strays working at her stall. "There she is, the thin one."

Ma Cho was small and harried-looking, with spirals of wiry hair hanging over her forehead, like a fringed awning. She was in her mid-thirties, more Burmese than Indian in appearance. She was busy frying vegetables, squinting at the smoking oil from the shelter of an upthrust arm. She glared at Rajkumar suspiciously. "What do you want?"

He had just begun to explain about the boat and the repairs and wanting a job for a few weeks when she interrupted him. She began to shout at the top of her voice, with her eyes closed: "What do you think — I have jobs under my armpits, to pluck out and hand to you? Last week a boy ran away with two of my pots. Who's to tell me you won't do the same?"And so on.

Rajkumar understood that this outburst was not aimed directly at him: that it had more to do with the dust, the splattering oil, and the price of vegetables than with his own presence or with anything he had said. He lowered his eyes and stood there stoically, kicking the dust until she was done.

She paused, panting, and looked him over. "Who are your parents?" she said at last, wiping her streaming forehead on the sleeve of her sweat-stained aingyi.

"I don't have any. They died."

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Reading Group Guide

1. In an interview, Amitav Ghosh said of his work, The Glass Palace, “one can examine the truths of individuals in history definitely more completely in fiction than one can in history.” Discuss this statement as it pertains to the novel. Which truths do his characters reveal?

2. Look closely at the characters whom Ghosh envisions in the most detail, Rajkumar, Dolly, Uma, Arjun, to name a few. They become extraordinary in our minds of the reader, as we travel with them through a century of social upheaval and political turmoil. But according to the social structure, they are all, or once were, relatively ordinary individuals. What is the effect of focusing a novel of such grand, epic sweep, on members of common society? How does this very subtle choice affect the story’s shape? What does it tell us about history, and how we have always been taught to remember it?

3. Memory could almost be considered a character unto itself in Ghosh’s novel. For instance, Rajkumar’s life is utterly driven and shaped by his one, striking, boyhood memory of Dolly in the plundered Glass Palace during the invasion of Burma. How does memory play into the lives of Ghosh’s other characters? Can you think of examples where memory compelled a character to action, or impeded him from recognizing a particular truth? To what extent does Ghosh suggest the existence of collective memory?

4. Ghosh raises several debates over the course of the novel, one central to the political subtext being that of Imperialism vs. Fascism. Why does society not look upon Imperial soldiers with the same scorn it holds for those soldiers committing atrocities under fascistregimes? Should these Imperial mercenaries be considered willing and conscious henchmen, or were they merely following orders? What stance does Ghosh take on this issue, if any? What other debates were you able to extract from the book? What techniques does Ghosh use to bring these issues and their various arguments to light?

5. Ghosh constructs several unique, remarkable, and strong female characters: Dolly, Uma, Queen Supayalat, even the First Princess, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Each of these women tells us something different and important about the time and place in which she was living. What strengths do these women express, and at what points are they identified and illuminated in the novel? In examining the range and evolution of Ghosh’s female characters, what could we conclude about the relationship between feminine domesticity and empire? Where and how do the two intersect? What role do women play under colonialism, and how do Ghosh’s characters either reflect or reject it?

6. Uma is a particularly interesting character, as she illuminates one of the ideas central to Ghosh's novel. When we first encounter her, she is constantly worried about being the proper memsahib, following traditional domestic etiquette, and living up to the standards of her husband, the Collector. She soon realized, however, that her husband’s dream was not in accordance with the rules of Indian custom, he longed “to live with a woman as an equal in spirit and intellect, ” and she could never, according to custom, fulfill those expectations. We see a monumental change in her disposition when she returns to India from New York. How has she transformed, and by what force? What does Uma’s character tell us about the nature of history and the power of social forces as factors in everyday life?

7. Over the course of the novel, the division between conquerors and conquered becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. The inevitable ethical dilemma faced by Indian soldiers in the British army comes to the foreground of the novel, as one member of the INA challenges Indian soldiers in the British army, “Do you really wish to sacrifice your lives for an Empire that has kept your country in slavery for two hundred years?” Can you think of any other episodes in which Ghosh highlights this argument? How does this debate affect the course and scope of the story?

8. In several episodes, Ghosh asks the question, both of his readers and of his characters; can submission to an oppressor, in certain instances, be a sign of strength, rather than weakness? For example, at the very outset of the novel, Rajkumar is heartbroken when he sees Dolly marching out of Burma in the royal procession, offering the sweets he gave her as a token of his affection to one of the British guards. Was this a sign of strength on Dolly’s part? How does this foreshadow other events in the novel? What do such episodes tell us about the effect of colonialism, both on the individual and the collective?

9. In The Glass Palace Ghosh examines the individual, psychological dilemmas posed by colonialism. At one point, an Indian officer in the British army during World War II exclaims, “What are we? We’ve learned to dance the tango and we know how to eat roast beef with a knife and fork. The truth is that except for the color of our skin, most people in India wouldn’t even recognize us as Indians.” This quest for and recognition of personal identity, both lost and found, figures prominently in the novel. Where do we see this pursuit played out? How does Ghosh reconcile the notions of personal identity and national identity? Is one derivative of the other?

10. Exile and return are themes that lie at the core of The Glass Palace. We see King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat living out their exiles in Ratnagiri, we also experience Dolly’s flight from and return to Burma. Even Rajkumar appears in a constant state of escape and return, from his early abandonment at age 11. What other stories of exile and return play out over the course of the book? How do these individual cycles contribute to the overall structure of the novel?

11. At various points in the book, Ghosh invokes the art of photography. We are encounter photographers throughout the novel, and find ourselves in a photography shop at the story’s close. Where else does photography enter the story, and how does it serve as a thematic thread? How does Ghosh weave the theme of photography into the overarching ideas about history and memory that permeate his novel? How does the photographer’s art relate to Ghosh’s conception of the human heart and mind?

12. The style of The Glass Palace is elliptical, and at times, uneven. Ghosh dedicates an entire paragraph to describing the camera with which Mrs. Khambatta photographed Dolly and Rajkumar’s wedding, yet the actual ceremony takes place, elliptically, when Ghosh writes, “At the end of the civil ceremony, in the Collector’s ‘camp office’, Dolly and Rajkumar garlanded each other, smiling like children.” Other such major life events occur in only sentences, the births of children, the deaths of loved ones, wars, and other national catastrophes. Do you think this was an intentional literary choice on Ghosh’s part? What effect does it have on the book as a whole, on your perception of the characters and their stories?

13. As much defeat as there is present in The Glass Palace, there are also extraordinary tales of survival and hope. Can you think of some examples by which devastating defeat is countered by enormous hope? What claims does Ghosh make about the human spirit in this novel?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 24 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2013


    A wonderful book. So full filling. In reading you become absorbed in rhe charactors lifes that you find yourself living them as the story unfolds.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 30, 2010

    Stunning Novel of Burman Culture & History!

    One of the best novels ever written about the Burmans. Indepth knowledge and brilliant characterization of the actual lives of the 19th century royal family and the severing of their power by the English Empire. Engrossing read that moves at a steady pace.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2006

    Good mix of history and fiction

    The interleaving of the lives of the protagonists with the political events of the time is done seamlessly. The story flows smoothly and covers the span of two world wars through the eyes of RajKumar, his family, friends etc. The emotional and moral conflicts of Dolly, Uma, Arjun etc are depicted with honesty and kindness. With his words and imagery, the author is able to transport the reader to the Glass Palace, Burma's teak forests and the Malaya plantations. A great overall reading experience.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2005

    wonderful story

    Just a great read. Loved all the characters and historical background. Ghosh did a wonderful job researching and putting this novel together.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2004

    Thoroughly Enjoyed

    A well researched and beautifully told saga that was hard to put down. Thank Heavens for storytellers like Ghosh with the ability to make important history lessons so entertaining. I look forward to another masterpiece from this author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2003


    Few books can bring tears to my eyes and make me mad the book ended at the same time! Great book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2002

    History was never made so beautiful

    Writing a semi-fiction, rather, a piece of literature whose many characters and incidences are by no means fictitious, is an arduous task, but Ghosh manages to accomplish it with a rare aplomb. Technically Ghosh is superb, painting a vivid picture of the period and the different cultures (Burmese and Bengali in particular) and their evolution. He maintains a delicate balance between the evolution of the historical, 'non-fictitious', characters and events and those which are the produce of his imaginations. I can't help admiring Ghosh for his ability to create characters who seem so so real that makes me feel as if I have personal acquintance with them, and this feat he manages to achieve in all his books, The Circle of Reasons, The Shadow Lines (my eternal favourite) and also Calcutta Chromosomes. I had picked up this book with apprehension that he won't be able to live up to the promise that he has created himself through his previous works, but by the time I reached halfway I realised that my apprehensions were grossly misplaced. Each character is subtly crafted out in detail and their evolution couldn't be more natural. It's definitely a very good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2002

    Definitely worth a read

    Its a great book which enables todays young readers to explore India / Asia during times of war and British rule. At times the book is a bit slow but its thought provoking and I loved it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2002


    The Glass Palace is a riveting novel set in late 1800¿s during British invasion. Amitav Ghosh most definitely proves himself to be among the most impressive Indian writers of the modern generation. The story is of a young Rajkumar who befriends a young lady, Dolly, in the court of the Burmese Queen. Dolly influences Rajkumar¿s life in the numerous ways. Ghosh¿s, The Glass Palace echoes themes of war and rebellions and empire and exile, but more so he has intricately placed shadows of the separations, loves, migrations and reunions!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2001

    It's like a first love, you'll never get over it

    This book was brilliant. From the first word to the last i was willingly swept away into another world. There was never a moment that i was tempted to skip sections (like i do with some other books.) If you only read one novel in your life, make it this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2001

    An exotic south asian saga

    I borrowed Glass Palace from a library 2 days back and after being unable to put it down, finished it last night. For 2 days, I was transported back to the burning 19th-early 20th century. The book, through its rich characters, enabled me not only to appreciate the Indian struggles better, but helped me see Burma in a whole new light. Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2000


    Just an ok novel on the lines of the so-called ' Great American sagas spanning Generations, inevitably the period 1914 to the 2nd World War'. The only difference being, that in this novel the main protagonists are Indians. The novel begins fortuitously enough with description of the city of Mandalay and its beautiful palaces, but loses steam in the middle, one can skip pages with utmost immunity. The end is emotional and quite likable, but all in all a mediocre effort from a writer of Ghost's stature. Can be missed without feeling guilty.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2011

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