I live in a small town in New Jersey that is bisected by a minor highway. A few years back, there was a plan to replace a dilapidated, abandoned red barn with a strip mall. We are a town that is well-found in strip malls, but not so much in buildings that are older than, say, Derek Jeter. The township sat down with the developer and reached a compromise. The developer agreed to make the strip mall buildings look vaguely barn-like, and to reconstruct and repaint the old barn as an ironic memorial to the Garden State’s agricultural heritage. Or at least I think it was supposed to be ironic. It would make more sense that way.
That barn is a little over 200 years old. When it was built, the temple at Angkor Wat was already impossibly ancient. Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia --- they have it on the flag, no less --- and the crowning achievement of the 12th-century Khmer people. As described in John Shors’s TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND FACES, it is a complex structure, complete with towers, gardens and artistic carvings.
"TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND FACES, like Angkor Wat itself, is gorgeous and varied, with power and beauty to spare. Shors does a masterful job setting his characters in conflict with each other, and brings the tale to a satisfying and victorious conclusion."
This is Shors’s second work that centers on an ancient Asian landmark building; his first novel, the stellar UNDER A MARBLE SKY, detailed the construction of the Taj Mahal in India. The action in TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND FACES takes place a few years after the construction of Angkor Wat by Hindu priests, and focuses not on the architectural qualities of the temple but on a savage war fought on its precincts just a few years after the construction was completed. The peace-loving Khmer people who built the temple were attacked and enslaved by the Chams, a neighboring warlike tribe.
Only the noble Prince Jayavar escapes the city with his life. Racked by grief and guilt, the prince must find a way to stay a step ahead of the pursuing Chams, reconstitute an army, and retake the temple. At Angkor Wat, the brave and ruthless Indravarman of the Chams is busy consolidating his rule, searching the jungle for Jayavar, and managing the rivalry between two powerful lieutenants.
Shors does a masterful job in bringing the cruelty and beauty of 12th-century Cambodia to vivid life. The description of Angkor Wat is fascinating and compelling. The culture of the Khmer is lovingly described, both in the palaces and in the huts of the local fishermen. The battles that rage at the end of the book are told with style and energy.
Shors creates a cast of characters as diverse as anything you’ll find this side of a George R. R. Martin novel, with multiple intersecting storylines involving enslaved princesses, paranoid leaders and pitiless assassins. The invading Indravarman wields his power with unrelenting forcefulness, but is capable of subtle stratagems. The Khmer women left behind in Angkor Wat are resourceful and daring. The bloodthirsty Cham assassin Po Rame, leading the hunt for Jayavar, is a thoroughly satisfying villain.
Where TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND FACES lags a bit is its portrayal of Prince Jayavar, who is noble and heroic, and leads his army from the front. He is a larger-than-life romantic hero and has a legendary romance with the mystical and beautiful Ajadevi, who counsels him on what he must do to win back his kingdom. Their love story is central to the book, but their dialogue is stilted and wooden. Part of this has to do with the nature of historical fiction itself; it’s very hard to get historical figures to talk in a contemporary manner, especially when they’re from a different culture. But Shors is unsuccessful in creating believable chemistry between Jayavar and Ajadevi, and it makes the narrative drag on a little more than it might have.
TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND FACES, like Angkor Wat itself, is gorgeous and varied, with power and beauty to spare. Shors does a masterful job setting his characters in conflict with each other, and brings the tale to a satisfying and victorious conclusion. If it is available at your local barn-like strip mall, you should pick it up without hesitation.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on April 12, 2013