Aug 19, 2014

[Books] The Cambodian Book of the Dead

I'm a bit of a NetGalley regular now since it's a great venue for connecting authors and book enthusiasts to help get the word out about new titles. The independent book review market that has grown over the years is a most interesting one and I'm glad to be part of the entire process. Plus who can say no to free books, right?

The Cambodian Book of the Dead was definitely an effort on my part to try out a title that was out of my comfort zone of science fiction and fantasy. It was positioned as a sort of mystery novel and it came with a rather interesting title that drew me in. Given my experience of reading The Windup Girl, I was rather hopeful that this book might provide an immersive experience that would use the rich backdrop of Cambodia as a canvas upon which the story is drawn upon.

The end result wasn't quite what I had hoped and it took me a lot longer than I expected to get through this book. This may again be a classic case of genre-reader mismatch or something - you know how there are just those books that don't entirely work for you but may work better for others. But at the same time, I think there were some fundamental narrative challenges that the book fell into and made things less than ideal overall.

Synopsis: The Cambodian Book of the Dead is the debut mystery novel written by Tom Vater. Admittedly the book was released more than a year ago but I only got around to reading it recently Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion of the work.

It's about 2001 and Maier is a German reporter who has given up that career for that of a detective. His current assignment has him going back to war-torn Cambodia in search for Rolf Muller-Overbeck, heir to a coffee empire. Apparently Rolf had decided to just leave for a simpler life in Cambodia and now his mother wants him found in the hopes of eventually bringing him back home. The last time Maier had been in Cambodia was as a reporter covering the news of the atrocities of war.

There he reconnects with old friends like the reporter Clarissa and a few other survivors who have set up a life in Cambodia like the American war veteran Les and others. And of course there are also complex local figures including the former general Tep, the exotically beautiful Kaley among others. And as Maier digs deeper, he discovers there's far more in play than just a young man who has run away from his responsibilities.

The book has a bit of a slow start to things as Vater sets the scene for the whole thing. You can tell that he's heavily invested in talking about Cambodia - the level of detail that he gets into demonstrates not just knowledge of the country but also a certain degree of passion for the culture and such. And while this is rather rich world-building, it feels like it comes at the cost of the story moving forward in a meaningful way. Thus we get bogged down in all these narratives about Cambodia's history and why things have gotten to where they are at the time of the story while the core mystery of things didn't really pan out.

Maier is sort of a non-character - he is given to us as readers as our protagonist but it's hard to buy into his character as being our "hero" of sorts. We know little about him beyond the fact that he used to be a reporter and now he's a director. He isn't a character that inspires sympathy or even empathy with what he goes through and as a detective he doesn't seem all that invested in his own role either.

As much as detective work includes a lot of interviews and questioning of different individuals, it seems that Maier only really has to ask around a bit to quickly locate Rolf. And when he does find Rolf, he doesn't seem to immediately follow the orders of his client in terms of keeping her posted as to her son's location and all that. He just sort of hangs around in Cambodia more and thus gets sucked into the dangers present in the local community. And while you can argue that it would have been unlikely that he could have gotten Rolf out of there without addressing the larger issues in play, it also feels like he could have been a lot smarter about how he handled things.

The second half of the book is where all the action is, but even the term action is somewhat relative. Maier seems to have a knack for getting himself into trouble and then he just sort of repeats bad decisions and gets back into trouble. And when things finally resolve and you think the core mysteries have all been resolved, the book doesn't end and Maier just keeps going back into the danger zone and it's not entirely clear why this had to be the case.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead has a lot of ambition built into it and I can respect what Vater wanted to accomplish. But he still needs to work on fleshing out his characters further and making sure that the mystery aspect to things is not lost in the back story development or the "cool moments" that he clearly wanted in the book. Thus I can only give the book a decent 2 colorful characters making Maier's life difficult out of a possible 5.

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