The Monk Prince by Golda Mowe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I've been sitting on this review, mostly because I do not know how to write it. I was rather ambivalent about Golda Mowe's first novel, Iban Dream, which was published by Monsoon Books. (I do not like most of Monsoon Books' list, so make of that what you will.) But I did quite like The Nanobots and Other Stories, so I figured I would give this one a try since it was published by Penguin SEA.
Ok look. Just because a book is published by Penguin Random House SEA doesn't mean it's good. I'm beginning to side-eye Penguin SEA and their poor editing quality (all outsourced!), strange cover decisions, and stupid pricing. I probably wouldn't be as annoyed with this book if it had cost the usual RM50 (-ish) for imported books instead of a whopping RM75. I'm not half as mad that I didn't quite like another local book I really should be reviewing because that only cost like RM20 (-ish. Can't remember what I paid for shipping). Printing in Singapore expensive kut.
ANYWAY. Back to the book itself.
The Monk Prince is an epic royal saga set in the Malay Archipelago in the 600s. Parantapa, raised by Buddhist monks to non-violence, is thrust abruptly into the middle of family drama when King Wayulo's spies finally find him after twenty years of searching. Not only does he have to adjust from a life of abstinence to one of plenty, he also finds himself an unwilling contender for the throne when King Wayulo discovers that his firstborn, Prince Alak Tegoh, isn't actually his biological son - meaning that Parantapa also has to give up his life of non-violence and learn to protect himself and his people. Across the sea, King Wayulo's brother-in-law, King Jayagapor, is looking to expand his political influence and increase his lands - and creating a war to put his nephew on Wayulo's throne looks like the perfect way to do it.
Filled with murder, betrayal, spies, and sea battles, The Monk Prince should have made for an enthralling read. However, the writing style creates an awkward distance between the reader and the story, leaving me feeling like I'm an observer from afar, rather than being able to immerse myself in the story world. In a way, it feels like actors merely reading lines instead of acting out and emoting the scenes. I suppose this is a preference rather than a fault.
There's also a slight feeling of disjointedness between scenes, as if the transitions are not quite right. This was especially obvious in later chapters when the scenes flip between POVs and the timeline becomes fuzzy. Does this next scene happen after the earlier one? Or are they overlapping? Why are we suddenly head-hopping so much?
For a book published by a major publishing house, it felt like the prose could have been polished much more. It starts off well, sags and drags a little in the middle, then picks up again with a lot of drama and action towards the end. There were also a few rather obvious typos, but well, typos happen. What irked me the most (maybe because I have struggled with this before) is the inconsistency in the titles & terms used. Within the same paragraph, Mowe switches between princess and puteri for Ming Zhu and between raja and king for Wayulo. Sometimes Megabintang is Queen, sometimes she is Rani. Gunawan is Commander in one line, then Panglima in the next. I think I fault the editor for this one.
As I said at the start, experience tells me that I may not really like Mowe's writing style, and The Monk Prince seems to confirm that. The story itself is solid, reminiscent of Udayasankar's Three. Despite my ambivalence as a whole, I do think that this is a book worth investing your time in especially if you do like historical fiction a whole lot more than I do.
I'm still annoyed at the price, though.
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