This book was provided to me courtesy of Random House India for review purposes.
To be honest, ‘The Thousand Names’ looked like a daunting read. It’s a hefty book on war and seemed like something I may not enjoy. Then I started reading, and simply got swept away in its flow. I read it while coming and going to work in the metro and it was quite fun to see the looks on the faces of my fellow passengers, with their compact i-phones and Androids, as they saw me pull out this massive tome out of my bag. I was also reading two other books simultaneously and by that strange quirk of fate it seems that all three plots revolved around religion and wars. This one, however, was hands down the best of the lot.
But let’s talk first about the cover. I am not sure how many of you are really interested in this part of my blubberings, but hoping that some of you feel as strongly about book covers as I do, I persist. The cover shows a man in a heavy chain mail with an iron mask over his face (which is actually steel) and a paunch, wielding a cumbersome gun in a battle taking place in front of a fort. (That scene never happened by the way). I guess it is appropriate for the subject matter of the book, but I am not sure why the artist chose this particular character. There were other more poignant (may be poignant is not the correct word – let’s say poignant if you were a Vordanai or a Khandhari) images that leap out in the narrative and seem more appropriate and relevant to the storyline; unless the artist knows something that we don’t about the books that are to follow. Food for thought. So yes, the cover could have been better.
Moving to the story. The Vordanai belong to a powerful, green and cool kingdom and have set out to rule the world (the author fails to mention if it is also an island). The Khandhari’s are desert people, whose kingdom has just been engulfed in a reformist religious wave, one which is unforgiving, harsh and extremely strict, believes in gender inequality and has a fanatic band of followers. Ring a bell. For a moment there I went back and studied the map carefully to check whether the author was talking about the world as we know it. But no. I am pretty sure he isn’t. And yes, the plot feels eerily familiar for the first few pages, until you get immersed in the characters and let the author enjoy his artistic license. The Vordanai Company stationed at Khandar consisted mostly of the dredges and the troublemakers of the Vordanai main army who had been sent to this desert as a sort of compromise – getting them out of the picture without actually throwing them out of the army. They had it pretty easy before the Redeemers threw them out with the Prince of the city. When we enter the story, they have all been holed up in a fort by the sea, a few miles away from the city, hoping that the Redeemers don’t follow them here to finish them off while waiting for the ships that will take them home. However, when the fleet arrives with a fresh stock of soldiers, the older ones, known as the colonials, are disconcerted to find that they are expected to go back and fight the Redeemer army, which outnumbers them 50 to 1. That’s when the story gets really interesting.
Each chapter is narrated from the point of view of one main character: Jaffa, Winter, Marcus, Feor and even General Khtoba. Most people would love Winter, she is definitely a gritty character, a woman masquerading as a man and that too in the army stationed in hostile territory, but with a lesbian angle that grates on me (it seems two women can no longer be friends without being sexually intimate in present-day literature). However, I became a fan of Marcus. That simple, stolid, honest, loyal soldier. A man who doesn’t really understand the multiple political and personal intrigues unfolding around him and yet tries his best to maneuver both his men and himself around these. Feor is a priestess of the old religion, the one the Redeemers are trying to wipe out, and has quite a bit of magic in her and seems just as her character should be. Jaffa is a Khandhari and I have a suspicion that he will have a more important role in the next book.
The highlights of the book are of course its battle sequences, which are wonderfully written. What was it that General Patton said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” Easier said than done, I suppose. I could almost feel the tension and the desperation of the men vibrate through me as they faced their enemies. This was not warfare with computers and aircrafts, where the enemy is a dot on your screen or on the horizon, but one where a soldier sees the enemy walking towards him with both murder and fear in his eyes, physically engages with him, all the while trying to maintain a foothold and a space around himself as he is crushed together with thousands of other people equally intent on doing the same. As I read those battle sequences, I imagined all those wars that the have been fought on my country’s soil against the Mughals and the British, with antiquated weapons that would be no match for guns or even battle-hardened veterans. The sheer overwhelming forces that clashed together in the dust. The fear that any moment you may be hit and not find yourself dead but crippled or, worse, at the mercy of your enemies. How terrible must it be to live through that fear over and over again, knowing that it won’t be over today or the next day or the next?
Oh, I liked this book a lot and I am truly anticipating what the next part brings. Don’t be intimidated by the size of the book, it’s definitely worth it.