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Winter on the Plain of Ghosts, Eileen Kernaghan, Flying Monkey Press, 2004, 254 pp.
Winter on the Plain of Ghosts is a surprisingly effective book, a nifty mix of historical novel and fantasy. The book takes place in the Indus River valley before the time described by the Rig Veda, which essentially means before recorded history. This area of the world is one, like Mesopotamia, that is built on many layers of collapsed civilizations. Kernaghan takes this somewhat abstract historical notion - the reasons why an entire civilization would disintegrate -- and works narrative magic out of it, mainly by personalizing the story. What would it be like to live in a doomed society? After reading this book I have a disturbingly clear, almost lived sense of a culture-wide death spiral. More on this powerful theme in a minute.
Winter on the Plain of Ghosts is mainly a decent story of an adolescent growing up. A boy named Rujik is an orphan in the hill country; he escapes with his best friend Bima just before the two are set to be sacrificed to a local goddess. They journey towards the big cities near the river. After some misadventures in the desert, Bima joins a dance troupe and Rujik continues on his own all the way to one of the great cities of Meluhha. At this point, Rujik's fate is mainly decreed by the people that he meets in chance encounters. This means that for a chapter or two he ends up working with a troupe of dirty hungry thieves. Later he meets an elderly alchemist and becomes an apprentice of sorts. He doesn't have much talent for magic but he's clever at bargaining and he has a strong back. Bima shows up later on as a famous dancer in her own right, and Rujik becomes a successful merchant.
So far so good. Rujik is a typical boy for this kind of story and I was expecting most of the twists and turns in the narrative. Kernaghan ups the ante considerably by means of the aforementioned theme of collapsing civilization. The city is suffering under the careless and repressive rule of the Temple, a religious power structure that is concerned mainly with its own comforts and privileges. Because the priests also believe that things happen because they should happen (the narrative makes it clear that those in power agree with this while no one else does), this is a fatal combination in the face of changing circumstances, ecological or otherwise. For example, some of the poorer parts of the city are slowly being swamped due to a blocked river passage; the priests have no reason to do anything about the problem. Rujik, Bima, and their friends become involved in the struggle against a dying political system. Like similar passages in Dorsey's Black Wine, Kernaghan writes about the revolution very carefully -- this is no heroic struggle but rather a violent implosion. And events swiftly cascade out of Rujik's control. Not surprisingly in light of the subject matter, this can be quite a bloody book.
The death of a civilization is an intriguing theme. Kernaghan's explanation for why a civilization might collapse (collapses which happened with some frequency in the Near East and Mesoamerica) is even more disturbingly easy to excerpt and apply to events here in our times. Winter on the Plain of Ghosts fits into a long tradition in the genre; it's a book that's both about a specific time period (which happens to be in the past in this case) and our own times. All books inevitably speak out of an implicit contemporary milieu, but historical novels and fantastic novels share this sense of story and meaning working together and against each other. If you can't learn from history or science fiction, you're doomed to repeat it.
Due to an odd personal peeve, I was leery of reading this book. At first the title seems like one of those randomly generated fantasy titles that has no relation to the content of the book in any way (the respective series by Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin being two of the worst offenders, title by title). One of the happiest moments of reading this book, therefore, for someone with my reading history, was to discover that the title resolves into a poignant glimpse into the main theme of the book. The image of a fertile plain reduced to ashes and populated by ghosts gives me the shivers now that I have read this book and look back at its title.
For what I thought would be nothing but a boy's own adventure, this book was a welcome surprise. Nuanced, intriguing in theme, and not overbalanced in its application of historical research. The book also has a strong sense of oral storytelling, quite fitting for the time period as described. The book has a map of the various areas in the book; the events mostly coincide with what is Pakistan today. Kernaghan also includes an "Author's Note" as a conclusion; she mentions some of her sources, as well as other ideas that have been advanced for the fall of the cities in the area.
Flying Monkey Press deserves kudos for publishing this book. I just wish they had made this edition a little more attractive. The front and back cover display appropriate works of art but these are small and the rest of the cover is an unpleasant brown colour. I understand that the fetishization of the book as object can go too far, but in this case a happy medium would have been appreciated.
Last modified: July 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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