January is too early to start proclaiming anything the ‘best book of the year,’ right?
Well, obviously I can’t say for sure, but this very well might be.
‘River of Ink’ is historical fiction with the feel of epic fantasy. It’s an ABSOLUTE MUST for any fan of Guy Gavriel Kay. (It’s a shame that this isn’t going to show up on fantasy lists just because it doesn’t feature the alternate-names overlay that Kay uses in his fiction.) But it’s the exact same mix of history with a dash of the fantastic, and features very similar themes: homeland, loyalty, love…
In 13th-century Sri Lanka, an invader (later to be known as Magha the Tyrant https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalinga…) has seized power. Under the new regime, executions and bloody slaughter are daily events, and no one, from the lowliest farmer to the highest court official, is safe. The court poet, Asanka, lives in terror, but is spared – for now – because Magha has a use for him: he is ordered to make a translation of a famed epic poem, The Shishupala Vadha (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shishup…), from Sanskrit into Tamil. Magha believes that this project will endear him to the populace – but almost by accident, the act of translation might become an act of sedition.
Meanwhile, Asanka attempts to use his precarious protected status to procure safety for his beloved mistress, Sarasai. But will his favor only endanger her further?
As befits a story deeply involved with a poet and poetry, the language is lyrical and evocative. For that alone, it is a pleasure to read. But beyond that, the background is painstakingly researched and the setting brought vividly and believably to life. And then – above the setting, the true strength of the story is the character study of Asanka, his cowardice, his passions, his complex emotions, and beautifully realized contradictions – and the growth that he is led to.
It’s almost hard to believe that this is both a debut novel and that the author is so young – the mastery of the writing craft feels strong and effortless, and the portrayal of a character who is no longer young is wholly convincing. Impressive.
Many thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.