British journalist, editor and archivist Paul M. M. Cooper bewitches readers with his debut novel River of Ink – a foray into the depths of medieval Sri Lanka.
As court poet, Asanka has something of a privileged life. Spending most of his days in the luxury of the apartments afforded to him by the king – to whom he has dedicated his life – he teaches his mistress, a servant by the name of Sarasi, the secrets of language while assisting his master the best he can.
For the most part, King Parakrama is enjoying a charmed reign but all that comes to an end when Prince Kalinga Magha invades the nation and takes the throne for himself, locking the queen away for his own evil pleasures. In this now poor economy, citizens struggle to make ends meet, not knowing where their next meal will come from or even if they will see tomorrow’s sun rise.
Charged with the task of translating a famed Sanskrit poem for the masses to enjoy, it would seem Asanka’s life is saved … at least for the next few months or so. But Manga’s temper is volatile at best and Asanka must make his next move carefully if he has any chance of survival or seeing his beloved Sarasi again – who has caught the new king’s eye.
Asanka vows to keep his head down and focus on the task at hand. But as he goes about his duty, he is reminded of his love of the written word and the power it possesses. He sees an opportunity to challenge his new tyrant’s reign and in doing so, create a new life for himself and his lover. The only question is: will he survive long enough to succeed?
Mahesh Rao, who wrote The Smoke is Rising, is just one of many authors and critics who have praised Cooper’s novel, saying: “A highly accomplished debut: Cooper’s writing glides from movements of grace and beauty to pure horror in this enthralling novel.”
Usually when deciding on a new novel to read – particularly if I intend to review it myself – I try not to read these kind of quotes for fear it will sway my own opinion of the book, but in this case I have to agree wholeheartedly with Rao, who probably says it better than I ever could.
River of Ink is almost like Asanka’s love letter to Sarasi, as he struggles with his mortality and vein hopes for their future together. Much like the poetry for which Asanka is famous for, Cooper’s words are things of beauty, rich and tender. From beginning to end he weaves a spell around reader’s hearts with an epic tale of history, violence and (perhaps everyone’s secret favourite) romance. What more could any book lover ask for?
As a fan of historical fiction, I was probably always going to be a little biased with this one, but in my opinion, this is the best fictional accounts of Asian medieval history since Lian Hearn’s epic Tales of Otori series – set to become a timeless classic for fans of the genre itself and the written word as a whole.
[Editor/Author Note: This review was originally published by The Australia Times.]