Devi Yesodharan’s Empire is a gripping novel of war, intrigue and adventure set in the 11th century Chola empire.
“We have such little historical fiction.” I forget now who said this to me but the remark has stuck in my head. The person was referring to the large number of books we have on mythological characters, with very few of them really about India’s longer history. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the fact that India hasn’t been a united country during its many millennia of civilisation and thus, writing for a pan-Indian audience was difficult. It is no surprise then, that fictionalised history has been dominated by Mughal era stories – most famously K. Asif’s grand movie, Mughal-E-Azam.
Devi Yesodharan’s Empire is set to change all of that. Sumptuously detailed, beautifully imagined, it is the tale of an archer and warrior in the empire of Rajendra Chola, who ruled a vast empire from 1014-44. In a lovely twist, the main character is not from South India but rather a Greek woman, who has been surrendered in defeat by a raiding party bested by the Cholas. As such, Aremis, raised as something not exactly a vassal, but not quite an equal, in a society that she belongs to by defeat.
This device, like the role of the mosaicist in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium, allows Yesodharan a character who both belongs and does not, who is taught the manners of the Chola empire, but is constantly crossing red lines, such as firing a lit arrow at the target in a competition she has won – forfeiting the victory she has worked so hard for. This belonging and unbelonging also allows Aremis to be an intensely ‘modern’ woman, challenging authority, carving out her place in her society by her ability, her force of arms and her will.
It is also a little implausible. In the 11th century, Greece was facing many threats to its territory, most importantly from the Bulgarians, it is not terribly likely that they would be sending raiding ships as far abroad as India, when they faced major threats much closer to home. Nevertheless it is a minor implausibility, such as those found in the great historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. Although Aremis does not occupy a post as important as Claudius does in the Roman Empire, as a bodyguard to the king, she is at the centre of intrigue, power, ceremony and war.
And she really is a lovely creation. Witness this scene from the first chapter:
The dark soil underfoot, the warm air, the insistent sun: this land was so strange to me at first it was like seasickness on firm ground.
For a long time I held the language in my mouth like stones, the words never coming out right.
But the food – that I loved instantly. Lamb covered in precious pepper roasts on a spit. Duck eggs fry on pans on carts, to be eaten with millet flatbread; small, spiced sardines cook in tamarind gravy, to be served with rice mixed with peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
Crows cawing for leftovers form a black fringe on the edge of the street. Someone scrapes iron against a pan before throwing in a sizzling pat of ghee. Ghee: the smell is a beckoning finger, a scent heavy enough to almost taste. I only have coins for some roasted peanuts.
The luscious, sense-rich descriptions in the book work well to describe both the character, the land and its realities. They also display a great deal of attention to detail, which allows Yesodharan to authoritatively describe and inhabit the time and place that are critical to the narrative. As Aremis is a warrior, the pacing and visceral descriptions of fighting are also key to holding the narrative in place. Again, Yesodharan delivers admirably.
He was a big fellow with pretentious warpaint slathered on his face and neck. I knew from one look that he was a clumsy fighter given to smashing skulls together, so I ran straight at him while he mentally cracked his fingers and waited, and then I feinted left, and before he had time to whip towards me I moved right. Fighters have a certain set of expectations in the speed and accuracy of their opponents, and I took pleasure in showing them how narrow those expectations were.
But it is not just Aremis telling the story, instead the novel is spoken in first person, between her and the great warrior, Anantha, introduced right at the beginning. It is he who led the party that defeated the Greek war party and wrenched captives from the warrior Pelias as trophies, including the then 11-year-old Aremis. Unlike her, he is the insider’s insider and can ignore rules and traditions as he wills.
He enters his house gate and hears nails on stones as his dogs run towards him… Brown Meeta, his favourite, is in front. You are not supposed to name dogs, let alone have them in the courtyard because of their impurity, but there is a lot that people overlook about Anantha.
As war, deception and rebellion play out in the great Chola empire, Aremis and Anantha tell you a story that is hard to put aside and even harder to forget.
The warriors gather on the beach, their faces upturned, hundreds upon hundreds of them. I wait, patiently. Finally, this is my moment. All the negotiating, the quiet assassinations, the captures – they lead up to this.
The key to great historical fiction lies in three things: research so deep that the author can bring the place and time alive, in engaging characters that reveal the workings of a time and culture that the reader is unfamiliar with and a plot that keeps you hanging by your fingernails. In all of these aspects, Empire is an exceptional achievement and will be the mark against which later books will be measured. One hopes that we have many of them, all aspiring to the quality that Yesodharan has achieved.