My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I won this book in a blog giveaway sometime last year in conjunction with #singlit. Figured I should read it now, or it would languish in my bookshelf for another year and a half at least.
Three is the story of the founding of Singapore out of the ashes of the Srivijaya empire--or, at least, the story of its founder of legend, Sang Nila Utama. It tries to pose as a grand epic; the saga of how Nila was ousted with his family from Palembang as a young boy and how he grew into his life as the king of Tumasik, which he renames Singapura because of the lion that shapes his dreams. And the framework of it, the background of the novel, is... yet the novel itself... isn't.
I couldn't quite get into it. There's nothing wrong with the prose. It's not the stilted, oddly academic "historical fiction" that's commonplace here. No--the language is lovely, almost ephemeral, like a dream.
I sleep. I dream. The children are still laughing, and there is still song. A ship appears on the horizon of placid seas. By the time it reaches shore, a storm is raging. Men, monsters with red eyes and drooling maws, emerge in droves from its dark hull. The children continue to play right till the monster-men trample them underfoot, their young bodies squelching into a morass of blood and meat.
What's not to like about that? It's haunting, it draws you in. And that's just a random paragraph my eyes fell on when I opened the book.
But it's waffly. Nila is a dreamer whose life is driven by the past, his fears, and indecision, and it makes for a story that goes in circles, especially when it's written from his point of view. Again, there's that first-person present-tense POV that comes to bug me--it's harder to like a story when you're reading it through the viewpoint of a person you don't resonate with in any way.
Udayasankar hints at many things but never says anything outright. It feels very Asian, to not say what you mean in hopes of saving face. Emperor Prabu Dharmasena only reveals his feelings when whispering in the night to a son he thinks is asleep. Nila's interactions with his brothers and sisters, and even the Majapahit emperor he considers his best friend, are couched in political terms. They cannot say what they really mean. They circle around issues, using metaphors, never getting to the meat of it. And that irritates me. Which is maybe hypocritical but it is what it is.
If there is a driving question in this novel, it's the question "what does it mean to be king?" that plagues Nila from the start of the novel when he is 17 to its very end when he has to face Majapahit in what might result in war. Through the three parts this book is divided into (Palembang | Bintan | Tumasik), Nila wavers back and forth, rejecting his heritage, his kingship because he doesn't know what it's supposed to mean to him. He seems to lack ambition, always pulling back into the shadows, unable to live fully in any calling--even if it's to be the sea warrior in his blood. Maybe that's why I can't stand him, because I personally cannot stand unambitious, overly waffly men. (Make up your mind! It doesn't matter if you fail, just make up your mind!--maybe this is why I am still single, but that is a digression, ha.) The only two things Nila seems to be sure of is his love of his wife, Sri Vani, and the fact that the seas are what matter. Even then, he needs to be prodded to ask for her hand, needs to be goaded before he will fight for the seas that matter to him.
Still, if you're looking for a novel that:
a) has adventure on the high seas (pirates! sea battles! swashbuckling stuff!)
b) has royal family drama (political marriages! barely veiled threats! deposed kings!)
c) is centred in Southeast Asia (the fall of Srivijaya! the strength of Majapahit! the ascendancy of Singapura!)
d) is historical fiction
I suppose this is for you. (Assuming you like waffly first person present POVs)
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