The King's Last Song

The King's Last Song

5.0 1
by Geoff Ryman
     
 

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"[Ryman] has not so much created as revealed a world in which the promise of redemption takes seed even in horror."—The Boston Globe

“Sweeping and beautiful. . . . The complex story tears the veil from a hidden world.”—The Sunday Times

“Inordinately readable . . . extraordinary in its detail, color and

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Overview

"[Ryman] has not so much created as revealed a world in which the promise of redemption takes seed even in horror."—The Boston Globe

“Sweeping and beautiful. . . . The complex story tears the veil from a hidden world.”—The Sunday Times

“Inordinately readable . . . extraordinary in its detail, color and brutality.”—The Independent

"Ryman has crafted a solid historical novel with an authentic feel for both ancient and modern Cambodia."
Washington DC City Paper

“Another masterpiece by one of the greatest fiction writers of our time.”—Kim Stanley Robinson

"Ryman's knack for depicting characters; his ability to tell multiple, interrelated stories; and his knowledge of Cambodian history create a rich narrative that looks at Cambodia's "killing fields" both recent and ancient and Buddhist belief with its desire for transcendence. Recommended for all literary fiction collections."
Library Journal

Archeologist Luc Andrade discovers an ancient Cambodian manuscript inscribed on gold leaves but is kidnapped—and the manuscript stolen—by a faction still loyal to the ideals of the brutal Pol Pot regime. Andrade’s friends, an ex-Khmer Rouge agent and a young motoboy, embark on a trek across Cambodia to rescue him. Meanwhile, Andrade, bargaining for his life, translates the lost manuscript for his captors. The result is a glimpse into the tremendous and heart-wrenching story of King Jayavarman VII: his childhood, rise to power, marriage, interest in Buddhism, and the initiation of Cambodia’s golden age. As Andrade and Jayavarman’s stories interweave, the question becomes whether the tale of ancient wisdom can bring hope to a nation still suffering from the violent legacy of the last century.

Geoff Ryman is the author of the novels Air (winner of Arthur C Clarke and James Tiptree awards) and The Unconquered Country (a World Fantasy Award winner). Canadian by birth, he has lived in Cambodia and Brazil and now teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester in England.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

After thriving in science fiction (the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Air), Ryman takes on the political history of Cambodia in this unsettling if overlong novel. In 2004, U.N. archeologist Luc Andrade discovers a 12th-century memoir written by Jayavarman Seven, one of the first Buddhist kings of a predominantly Hindu kingdom. While transporting the book to safety, Luc is kidnapped by a disgruntled Cambodian army lieutenant-colonel who believes the book should be returned to the people. As Luc fights to stay alive, his Cambodian friends-Map, a former Khmer Rouge murderer who now makes money hustling tourists, and William, a motorcycle taxi driver whose parents were killed during Pol Pot's regime-search for Luc and the ancient treasure. Ryman mixes his contemporary storyline with a less compelling narrative of Jayavarman, a precocious young prince turned exiled warrior king. While Luc's life story and current predicament are particularly well done, Ryman's take on Jayavarman and the development of his battle strategies can be plodding. In the end, it's the vibrant emotional lives of Luc and his friends that capture the tragic beauty of Cambodia. (Sept.)

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Library Journal

Ryman, known both for his experimental and his speculative works (253; Air), turns historical for this novel about Cambodia's bloody history. In 2004, French archaeologist Luc Andrade discovers an ancient manuscript written on golden leaves detailing the life of 12th-century King Jayavarman VII, the Buddhist ruler who built the ancient capital of Angkor Thom. However, Luc is kidnapped by embittered remnants of the Khmer Rouge. As the people who love and respect Luc search for him along the Siem Reap River, the novel intercuts between the story of Jayavarman's life as translated by Luc for his captors and the history of 20th-century Cambodia's self-mutilation as seen through the memories of Luc, his kidnapper, and Tan Map, a guide with a brutal past who leads the search for the archaeologist. Ryman's knack for depicting characters; his ability to tell multiple, interrelated stories; and his knowledge of Cambodian history create a rich narrative that looks at Cambodia's "killing fields"-both recent and ancient-and Buddhist belief with its desire for transcendence. Recommended for all literary fiction collections.
—Andrea Kempf

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781931520560
Publisher:
Small Beer Press
Publication date:
09/01/2008
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
947,643
Product dimensions:
8.48(w) x 10.88(h) x 1.02(d)

Read an Excerpt

Awakening

You could very easily meet William.

Maybe you've just got off the boat from Phnom Penh and nobody from your hotel is there to meet you. It's miles from the dock to Siem Reap.

William strides up and pretends to be the free driver to your hotel. Not only that but he organizes a second motorbike to wobble its way round the ruts with your suitcases.

Many Cambodians would try to take you to their brother's guesthouse instead. William not only gets you to the right hotel, but just as though he really does work for it, he charges you nothing.

He also points out that you might need someone to drive you to the baray reservoir or to the monuments. When you step back out into the street after your shower, he's waiting for you, big for a Cambodian, looking happy and friendly.

During the trip, William buys fruit and offers you some, relying on your goodness to pay him back. When you do, he looks not only pleased, but also justified. He has been right to trust you.

If you ask him what his real name is in Cambodian, he might sound urgent and threatened. He doesn't want you think he has not told the truth. Out comes the identity card: Ly William.

He'll tell you the story. His family were killed during the Pol Pot era. His aunty plucked him out of his mother's arms. He has never been told more than that. His uncle and aunt do not want to distress him. His uncle renamed him after a kindly English aid worker in a Thai camp. His personal name really is William. He almost can't pronounce it.

William starts to ask you questions, about everything you know. Some of the questions are odd. Is Israel in Europe? Who was Henry Kissinger? What isthe relationship between people in England and people in America?

Then he asks if you know what artificial aperture radar is.

"Are you a student?" you might ask.

William can't go to university. His family backed the wrong faction in the civil war. The high school diplomas given by his side in their border schools are not recognized in Cambodia.

William might tell you he lived a year in Phnom Penh, just so that he could talk to students at the Royal University, to find out what they had learned, what they read. You may have an image of him in your mind, shut out, desperate to learn, sitting on the lawn.

"My uncle want to be monk," he says. "My uncle say to me, you suffer now because you lead bad life in the past. You work now and earn better life. My uncle does not want me to be unhappy."

This is how William lives.

He sleeps in his uncle's house. It's on stilts, built of spare timber. His eldest cousin goes to bed late in a hammock under the house, and the candle he carries sends rays of light fanning up through the floorboards. The floorboards don't meet so that crumbs can be swept through them.

There is a ladder down to the ground. There are outbuildings and sheds in which even poorer relatives sleep. There is a flowerbed, out of which sprouts the spirit house, a tiny dwelling for the animistic spirit of the place.

William and two male cousins sleep on one mattress in a room that is partitioned from the others with plywood and hanging clothes.

William is always the first awake.

He lies in the dark for a few moments listening to the roosters crow. The cries cascade across the whole floodplain, all the way to the mountains, marking how densely populated the landscape is. William is himself in those moments. At every other time of the day he is working.

William looks at the moon through the open shutters. The moonlight on the mosquito net breaks apart into a silver arch. This is his favourite moment; he uses it to think of nothing at all, but just to look.

Then he rolls to his feet.

The house is a clock. Its shivering tells people who has got up and who will be next.

One of his cousins turns over. In the main room, William steps over the girls asleep in a row on the floor. He swings down the ladder into his waiting flip-flops and pads to the kitchen shed. Embers glow in moulded rings that are part of the concrete tabletop. William leans over, blows on the fire, feeds it twigs, and then goes outside to the water pump.

Candles move silently through the trees, people going to check their palm-wine stills or to relieve themselves. A motorcycle putters past; William says hi. He boils water and studies by candlelight.

He has taught himself English and French and enough German to get by. Now he is teaching himself Japanese. He needs these languages to talk to people.

On the same shelf as the pans is an old ring binder. It is stuffed full with different kinds of paper, old school notebooks or napkins taken from restaurants. Each page is about someone: their name, address, e-mail, notes about their family, their work, what they know.

William has learned in his bones that survival takes the form of other people. They must know you, and for that to happen you must know them. Speak with them, charm them, and remember them.

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