Sunday, November 27, 2005


I love discovering authors; who doesn't? That joy however is amplified many times when I find they've slogged away diligently in all the years that I hadn't heard of their existence to create a nice long list of books. Once I've made sure they aren't going to jump something nasty or distressing on me, I like settling into comfortable friendships, understanding the shapes and textures of their worlds, investing in them, coasting where they take me. Comfort reading.

I like series and I tend to start with the very first one and track them as they develop. To observe how plots and characters develop of course, but equally the writer and the craft itself. Whether a book is honest to its own self-contained purpose while forming another link in a chain. To see how authors deal with more of the same, more of the different. To notice when they find their first wobbly feet, when they get into the stride, when they are most earnest, most practised, most formulaic, most true, most insightful.

I discovered Elizabeth Peters a couple of years ago. On our trip to Kodi, Sudha kept brandishing this paperback about - interesting cover and an even more intriguing title, Crocodile on the Sandbank. Quick scan of the blurb, and words leaped out: 1884, Egypt, tombs, archeologists, mystery. It sounded like fun.

Amelia Peabody, single and wealthy, travels to Egypt to see if it can offer her adventure. It does, of course, in the form of missing mummies and dastardly villains. It also offers her two enduring loves - archaeology and Radcliffe Emerson, 'the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age.' That sets the tone for the series - they marry, have a son (whom they call Ramses) and return each year to Egypt to excavate sites and have thrilling encounters with arch enemy Sethos and other assorted bad men. There have been 17 books so far, I think.

Peters doesn't 'write' very well but she scores with characterisation, at least her primary characters. Brisk and managing, impetuous and brave, and with a robust sexual appetite, Amelia was amusing to begin with. But the books stayed superficial and a little into the series, I was quite ready to let go. Except they deepened.

Ramses grew up, and gently nudged his parents aside as he took centrestage. The precocious, verbose kid grows into a rather sexy young man, secretly and desperately in love with his adopted sister, Nefret. He has all the usual heroic attributes - intelligence, courage and oodles of sex appeal. He's taciturn, inscrutable, scrupulously polite, and astonishingly respectful of his overbearing parents. But Ramses is a vulnerable hero - a young man with very many fears, someone striving very hard to do the right thing.

He Shall Thunder in the Sky is set in troubled times, the beginning of WW I. The formula remains the same but the backdrop informs the narrative. Racism gets a look in, as do the sordidness of prostitution, and the senselessness of war.
Publicly reviled for not enlisting, Ramses is in fact a spy, albeit a reluctant one. Disguised as an Egyptian leader, he is shot one day and drags himself home in a near-faint. Amelia Peabody, who has hitherto treated her son with a mixture of exasperation and somewhat detached affection, learns what it means to her to have him at death's door.

Ramses's eyes opened. "I still hate this bloody war, you know," he said indistinctly.
"Then why are you doing this?"
His head moved restlessly on the pillow. "It isn't always easy to distinguish right from wrong, is it? More often the choice is between better and worse… and sometimes the line between them is as thin as a hair. One must make a choice, though. One can't wash one's hands and let others take the risks… including the risk of being wrong. There's always better… and worse… I'm not making much sense, am I?"
"It makes excellent sense to me," I said gently.

Including the risk of being wrong! I loved Ramses, and I suspect it was because I took the books at face value and he came up to surprise and move me. If you read these books and find you're beginning to like Ramses, don't start on Seeing a Large Cat without lining up The Falcon at the Portal, He Shall Thunder in the Sky and The Lord of the Silent. That way torture lies.


The Marauder's Map said...

Amazing how some books seem to touch just you, while others may find them silly or even foolish. I'm a bit like this over M M Kaye. I've even read her 'Death in' series, even though I know she rates nowhere as a crime fiction writer. But Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions had me enthralled, you see. Out of the two, Shadow is miles ahead, of course. I've read it about half a dozen times cover to cover, with a million dippings, and it's never failed to move me. I don't know anybody, though, who shares my passion for it.

Sheetal said...

Marauder: Let me point you at once to Nish (on my blogroll) who loves MM Kaye and has read all of the 'Death in' series. I've read only a couple, there're six, aren't there?

I loved loved The Far Pavilions and even read in appropriate settings, would you believe, sitting in a cantonment under the shadow of the Dauladhar range! It was a fabulous experience.
I wrote about it once here:

Have not read Shadow of the Moon but will try to get it at once - if you like it, I shall :-)
Incidentally, MM Kaye lived in Hyderabad for a while, did you know? Her father, I think, was stationed here. She painted some murals in the Secunderabad Club here and they're still there.

About that point you make about being moved and touched by something that no one else seems to 'get' - yeah, that happens. Sometimes, even frivolous books will have something if you are willing to receive. That's the fun, isn't it, being surprised, being grabbed, when you don't expect it.

The Marauder's Map said...

Thanks. Nish and I will have a hearty chat soon. And please, please read it at once. Though I'll be crushed if you don't like it :)

But maybe I love it so much because I read it first at the rather tender age of 16, and if it's possible to be really in love with a fictional character, I've been in love with the hero of this novel ever since. It's very silly, but very, very real for me.