I’m not quite of the correct age to deeply understand the struggles of modern Cambodia. The violence and anguish are perhaps still of too recent a vintage to be revisited by popular culture. But I also missed it when it was recent news. By the time the war-weary country began to realize something approaching peace, I was on the cusp of young adulthood. I began to attain a nascent awareness of world events only after the Khmer Rouge was a fading nightmare.
With dual narratives set in both contemporary and 12th-century Cambodia, The King’s Last Song (released in a paperback edition by Small Beer Press), allows me the opportunity to fill that gap.
Ryman has drawn on the Khmer people for inspiration before. His first novella, The Unconquered Country, was set in a fictional analogue of Cambodia during Pol Pot’s brutal regime. Three of the stories in his recent collection were set in either ancient or contemporary versions of that country. But even if you weren’t aware of these works, it would be obvious from a few chapters of Song that the author is no stranger to this part of the world.
The novel’s two stories are linked by a fictional golden book written by the real-life king, Jayavarman VII, back in the kingdom’s dark ages. When a UN archaeological expedition uncovers the 150 golden, Sanskrit-etched leaves in a dry riverbed, they are elated but nervous. Political and military factions are quickly jockeying for position to protect, escort and claim ownership of the book.
Its discoverers barely have a chance to realize that they are holding the memoirs of the greatest king of their history. The significance for the Cambodian people of such a relic from the glory days of the kingdom is hard to overestimate, but neither does anyone doubt its exploitative value as a bargaining chip. It is no surprise then when it is stolen and its keepers kidnapped.
Many of the ancient book’s short chapters are excerpted within Song, but Jayavarman’s story is primarily told through a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective of the king himself and of several secondary characters of his era. At the beginning of the book we see him as a minor prince, one of hundreds at the castle of the Universal King (all hostages, if not in name, insurance against the possibility of rebellion by their fathers, the so-called “Little Kings” of their regions).
We see him befriend a slave girl and then start to wonder about the placing of human beings in one category or another, based simply on the circumstances of their birth. Later we see him return to his ancestral land, a Little King himself, and can only read on to see how, in the end, he will end up uniting his nation as the latest and greatest of Universal Kings.
In the present day, Luc, a 50-something French national and archaeologist, is hard at work translating the book, even as he plots to spirit it away and escape his brutal captors. Unbeknownst to him, his friends are also hard at work, trying to track him down. They include Tan Map, a corrosive ex-Khmer Rouge who lives with his victim’s ghosts, and William, an irrepressibly optimistic youth who doesn’t remember much of the war that took his parents.
The most striking aspect of this novel is the complete lack, in all its epic scope, of any sort of Mary Sue character. Genre writers have traditionally been the worst culprits for telling every single story from the perspective of a 30-year-old American white guy. Minority characters, where they exist at all, always seem to fall into some sort of stereotype.
Not with Ryman at the helm. He carefully avoids any protagonist who might be considered a stand-in for the typical sci-fi reader (that 30-year-old American white guy). Luc, his token white guy, is in his fifties, spent his formative years in French-controlled Cambodia, and is quietly gay.
As for Luc’s companions, William is a poor but hardworking war orphan who arranges trips and motorcycle transportation for mostly European and Japanese tourists. Map is a mess. A villain in any other book, he tries to right his wrongs while being fully cognizant that “even the Buddha cannot keep an ex-Khmer Rouge from hell.”
Even the 12th-century characters are remarkably diverse. King Jaya is, at different times, an orphan, a slave, and a religious minority for his time and place. Rajapativarman, his son, is handicapped, born essentially without limbs in an era where a man is only as good as his sword arm.
The women in the king’s life are strong and intelligent, proving what feminist critics have been saying for decades: writing historical or historically based fantasy fiction is not an excuse for writing exclusively from a male perspective. Women may not have had as much political power, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have stories to tell and roles to play in the great human drama.
It’s the unique and well-drawn characters that ultimately ground both halves of the novel. In the modern-day story, emotionally damaged survivors of the war put a human face on a national ordeal. In Jaya’s epic kingdom-building tale — what I like to think of as Shogun, the Cambodian edition — the plot still comes down to individual human will and spirit. In the conquering of nations, sometimes even the lowliest slave has a necessary part to play.
At some point in the reading you may realize that Ryman’s latest novel doesn’t really constitute speculative fiction. At around the same time, you’ll probably find you don’t care.