Book Review: The Far Pavilions

Hi everyone! It is with great joy that I am finally writing a review on The Far Pavilions, because I have been reading this book since April. I actually started it on the airplane to the LA/San Diego trip I blogged about here. I’ve taken breaks every now and then to read other things, but this story was always on my mind and around 1000 pages later it feels good to be finished.

That said, don’t let my relief cause you to think this book isn’t good – it is an epic masterpiece. This is actually my second time reading it, and it has been in my family for awhile (see the assortment of editions above).

It is, in essence, the ultimate epic tale. This story is filled with adventure, intrigue, war, romance, and vivid characters and locations.

The Wikipedia description sums it up pretty well:

The Far Pavilions is an epic novel of British-Indiah history by M.M. Kaye, first published in 1978, which tells the story of an English officer during the British Raj. The novel, rooted deeply in the romantic epics of the 19th century, has been hailed as a masterpiece of storytelling. It is based partly on biographical writings of the author’s grandfather as well as her knowledge of and childhood experiences in India. It sold millions of copies, caused travel agents to create tours that visited the locations in the book, and inspired a television adaptation and a musical play.

This book is the story of Ash, who grew up believing he was Indian but was actually British by blood. After being sent to England for his education he returned to India as an officer in the Corps of the Guides (a famous regiment in the British Indian Army during British rule). It is really difficult to sum this story up because of the variety of experiences he goes through, but I’ll just say the twists and turns are fascinating. Ash has to navigate his way through palace intrigues, political and military strategies, danger, aching romance…it’s all there.

Throughout his adventures, Ash struggles with identity. Half of him is Ashok, an Indian boy who instinctively understands the religions and languages of the country he was born in. But by blood and education he is Ashton, a British man and expected to act a certain way. Sometimes his friends look on him with pity because he can’t take comfort in the prejudices and beliefs that one set of people typically hold against the other set.

Actually, this objectivity is very apparent in the voice of the author. The story is set during the British occupation of India, and winds through different parts of the country as well as different elements of history. However, she never sees one set of people as good or bad, or even the political situation from only one angle (at least as far as the characters of the people involved are concerned). There are good British men, and foolish ones. There are villainous Indian characters, and then there are those who within two sentences have become characters you love and will never forget.

My only complaint about this book was its length. It really could have been split into several novels. (Side note – it took her 15 years to write this book.) However, the “historical” aspect is never suffocating or boring (with the possible exception of one extended war section) – and as a whole the book makes you feel as though you are seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing these incredibly vivid experiences, as well as India itself. There is a reason it has been around this long and been so popular.

I’m sure that by now you can tell whether this is the type of book you would like. If it is calling to you, then I would not waste any time getting your hands on it. Four months and many hours later, I can still say I’m so glad I read it.

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  • Constance Sickels

    Have always loved this book. The ‘extended war scenes’ were vital to author MM Kaye as Wally Hamilton, who received the Victoria Cross in one battle and died a hero of Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides, was related to her husband’s family and their generations of Guides officers. The scenes and many participants (the Battye brothers, Campbell, etc.) are historically accurate.

    • Jessie

      How interesting! It just makes the book even better!

    • Monique B.

      Thank you for this fascinating information. I read this book when it was first published and loved it. It has found a permanent place in my imagination and heart, and I am so grateful the author shared her profound personal and historical knowledge of India in such a creative and vivid work of art.

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