Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Druids by Morgan Llywelyn

I come from Celtic stock (pronounced keltic by the way whatever the footballers think) and growing up I learned about the rich social and cultural history of my tribal ancestors. Though the Celtic society was enlightened in many ways ( in relation to the status of women for example and a deep respect for learning) their fragmented tribal society was unable to resist the onslaught of Julius Caesar's Roman legions who's successful campaigns  purged Celtic culture from all but the most Westerly regions of Europe.

History of course is written by the victors so most of what we know of the Roman campaigns in Gaul comes from Roman accounts most notably those written by Casear himself.  It was therefore refreshing to come across this novel  purporting to tell the tale of Gaul's downfall from the Celtic side.

The novel started out promisingly. Llywelwyn's depictions of Celtic society match what I had previously heard and his choice of Druid for a main character allows him to draw upon a wealth of lore and mythology. Unfortunately the story itself quickly descends into soap opera. A fairly thin story is patched onto the known historical facts and the authors attempts to flesh the tale out with sex and magic are quite unconvincing.

When you already know that a story is going to end tragically it is very important that the author sucks you in and and gets you so engrossed in the story and its characters that you just have to keep reading to the bitter end. Llywelwyn's book falls far short of this and I nearly abandoned it many times for lack of interest. Only the fact that I have nothing else to read at the moment ensured that I finished this one.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Not the sort of book I usually pick up but this mammoth tome is a terrific read. This book is part detective story, part gangster story, part historical saga,  part social commentary, part love story and part reflection on human existence all set against the background of Chandra's outstanding multi-layered portrayal of the teeming cauldron of humanity that is Mumbai.

Chandra portrays a city with extremes of poverty and wealth, with festering religious tensions, class tensions and significant gender inequality, where corruption and patronage are endemic where the police and politicians are often indistinguishable from the gangsters,  and yet where there are still heroes and villains, and where human existence is still glorious in all of its multifaceted complexity. I was so fascinated by this book that I went to google to learn more about Mumbai and about Indian history, society and culture. The references I checked support Chandra's portrayal and some of the tensions Chandra refers to are starkly evident in the differing interpretations of historical events that can be found on the internet. 

As an example of the loving craftsmanship that Chandra has obviously poured into this book consider the fact that immediately after the main plot is resolved there is a chapter devoted to several minor characters who only appear briefly in the rest of the book but who's stories nevertheless deserve to be told.