The King's Last Song

by Geoff Ryman

Cover image

Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 0-00-655210-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 488

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Ly William is a teenage motoboy in Cambodia who drives tourists and Westerners, including a regular job driving archeologists who are investigating Cambodia's past. He knows everyone and makes friends with everyone. It's his job to know people and remember people; it's good for business, and he can get along with anyone.

Tan Map, though, is a particular challenge. He's a Patrimony Policeman, a watchman protecting Angkor from art thieves, a scary half-crazy 44-year-old man who used to be Khmer Rouge. He usually maintains a face of manic friendliness, but not towards William. William is therefore determined to make friends with him.

Both of them are helping Luc Andrade and APSARA with their archeological digs. Both are present when a contractor with the dig uses a corer where he shouldn't and uncovers (and damages) gold tablets wrapped in palm leaves. The tablets tell the story of the 12th century Cambodian king and folk hero Jayavarman VII, written in his own words. Political and jurisdictional infighting quickly results, the Army comes to take possession of the tablets, and then they're stolen in an armed attack on a convoy and Luc is abducted with them. The precarious tourist industry crashes at the danger. William and Map, in their very different ways, are determined to find the tablets and Luc.

One thread of The King's Last Song follows William, Map, and Luc and the modern fate of the tablets. Another thread follows Map's younger life, before the war began, that led to him becoming Khmer Rouge and then switching sides. A third tells the fictionalized story of Jayavarman VII, partly in excerpts from the tablets but mostly as regular narrative following the life of a Prince who called himself slave. All of them are brilliantly compelling, rich in character and feel for far different lives. And all of them are emotionally complex, eschewing any easy villains or pure heroes. Even Jayavarman, a fiercely intelligent and open-hearted man in this fictionalization, with a deep and effective belief in Buddhism, balances his love of peace against war and revenge and, by the end of the book, is as human as the rest.

Ryman shows a deep, layered culture in every time frame in which he works without ever bogging the story down in description. Simple, effective, and readable prose paints pictures of 12th century elephants and ritual (including standing in the sun for long periods in uncomfortable clothes), the horrific bloodiness of war, William's extended family home and the personal connections of his daily life, and Map's crazy hyperconfident banter with fellow officers and soldiers. Ryman shows lives in telling detail and helps the reader understand each character from their own perspective. He moves the story beyond right and wrong into a vivid emotional complexity that includes even embittered Khmer Rouge.

In the hands of a lesser author, this could have been a very political book; in Ryman's, it's something larger. In both modern times and in Jayavarman's, the story has suffering, war, and violence, sometimes apparently necessary and so often not, but Ryman moves beyond that too. This is a story about people making the best decisions they're capable of at the time and suffering the consequences, about the walls that build up between people after pain and violence, and how we internalize and exhaust ourselves with the violence. It's a story about coping with damage. And, more deeply, it's a story about communication, understanding, and acceptance. Nothing can be forgiven unless it can be talked about, and no degree of hiding atrocity can put it into the past, nor can creating and clinging to villains.

I was particularly struck by the way that the past story and the present one intertwine to tell similar emotional stories. Often the same themes are present in both, but dominant in one half of the story and lurking beneath the surface of the other. For example, the questions of war and peace, of when war is justified, are front and center in Jayavarman's story. But in the modern story, William is the determined, accepting pacifist who is convinced that if he can understand someone, he can find a way to become friends with them. And Map carries the weight of his country's history behind bravado and wild determination to not let anything matter, showing another angle on the soldier that Jayavarman's story can't show. Jayavarman's story is also sharply concerned with the differences between social classes, a problem that is so prevelant and yet so much a part of the background in the modern story that it's hard to grasp it.

Conversely, the modern story deals explicitly with problems of understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, and love. This is more subtle in Jayavarman's story, but echoes are present in his complex domestic life, in the role his own past may have played in his decisions, and in his children. And Ryman never settles for simple aphorisms or superficial analysis: love isn't easy, blind, or silent.

Geoff Ryman blew me away last year with his exceptional science fiction novel Air, and I started watching for this book after reading his short fantasy story "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" in F&SF. The King's Last Song is a straight mainstream novel with neither SF nor fantasy elements. It doesn't matter. Ryman writes beautiful character stories in any genre and finds the same emotional magic and heartfelt honesty here, with an entirely different subject, that he had in Air.

This is the best novel I read in 2007. Highly recommended.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21