Whew! Finally made it all the way through The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye. It had it's ups and downs...
Ashton Pelham-Martyn grew up believing he was an Indian. After the death of his father from cholera, his ayah (nurse) attempts to reunite the 4 year old with his English family only to be caught up in a bloody revolt. To save the child's life she claims him as her own and hides him in a far corner of India. Ashton became Ashtok.
Fate brings him to the palace of a Maharajah to be the companion of a spoiled and frightened boy. As Ash grows up, palace intrigues put his life in danger once more and he must flee. When he leaves he makes a promise to Juli, the neglected daughter of a once favoured Queen, that he will come back someday.
All at once, Ash finds out who he really is, a wealthy English boy. His English family sweep him away from his beloved India. He struggles through school with only one goal in mind to get back to India. When he returns, it is with the army who put him in charge of the large wedding party of two Indian princesses. So who happens to be one of the princesses? Juli of course! You can see where this is going.
I loved the first part of this book. It's quite an adventure story and Ash is the ultimate hero: strong, principled and just a bit dangerous. I felt the conflict within Ash between his Indian and English self. He tries so hard to reconcile them both and never fits in anywhere. His idealism is the perfect foil to Juli's level headed practicality. And the romance! *drool* Ash and Juli are romance incarnate. They know their love is forbidden but they can't fight destiny. It's one of the best love stories I've ever read. But that is just one part of the story. The history of Indian, the lush descriptions of the mountains were beautifully written. The characters are larger than life: loving Sita, wise Koda Dad, loyal Zarin, bat-shit crazy Shu-Shu, and cheerful Wally are just a few.
The second half of the book, however, could have belonged in an entirely different novel. For most of it, Ash is just a character who comes in occasionally to say 'things are getting hairy.' It's about The Guides and the Second Afghan War; Ash and Juli were barely there. I did find parts of it interesting* but a lot of it read like a history of a terrible event. As a member of my book club put it, this book has an identity crisis. It can't decide what it is!
*I learned a lot about Afghanistan and as a person whose country is involved in the conflict there, I felt how important it was.