Monday, August 13, 2007

The Temple Dancer by John Speed

India, 1657.

When Maya, a graceful, young temple dancer with a mysterious past, is sold into slavery, she enters a world of intrigue, violence, and forbidden love. Bought by a Portuguese trader and sold as a concubine to the dissolute vizier of Bijapur, she embarks on a treacherous journey.

In a caravan led by the dangerous settlement man Da Gama, she travels by elephant on the hostile road to Bijapur, joined by Geraldo, a Portuguese adventurer, and Pathan, a handsome prince who carries a dark secret. Together with Lucinda, a beautiful, spoiled young Goan heiress, and the manipulative eunuch Slipper, they climb the windswept mountain road through the Western Ghats.

When their caravan is attacked by bandits, the travelers' lives are turned upside down. In the aftermath, Maya and Lucinda suddenly find themselves stranded in a strange, exotic world, a world filled with passion, romance, and deception, pure love and lurking evil, where nothing is as it seems and the two women are faced with great temptation as well as heart-wrenching decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

Greed, politics, commitment, courage, love, and intolerance mesh to form a vibrant Indian tapestry. With spectacular settings, unforgettable characters, fierce sensuality, and intense scholarship, this adventure-packed novel marks the debut of an exciting new storyteller.

The Temple Dancer is the first volume of John Speed's Indian trilogy, a three-book journey that will cover the final years of the Mogul Empire and the rise of the Marathis under the highwayman Shivaji. It will leave you breathlessly awaiting his next novel.

I am not really sure why, but I have never really been all that interested in India, and I haven't read a lot about it either. From what I can recall, years ago I read A Passage to India, or The Far Pavilions - I can see the cover in my mind, but can't remember exactly which book it was. Having said that, it seems as though this is changing as this was the first of two books that I have read that are set in India in the last couple of months.

First off, for a debut author, John Speed had the cover god's smiling on him, because the cover of this book is gorgeous, and certainly did a good job of representing the book to me! There is an intriguing mixture of characters and location. Amongst the characters we have Muslims, Hindus and Portuguese, men, women and the court eunuchs who give much of the humour but also much of the backstabbing and double crossing in the book.

The two central characters are Maya and Lucinda who are two women from two very different backgrounds. Maya is basically a slave, albeit a very expensive one, to be bought and sold by the highest bidder, at their convenience. She was a temple dancer and prostitute, and now she must be accompanied on her journey from Goa to Bajipur, where her new owner now resides. Also travelling on the journey is Lucinda who is a young Portuguese heiress whose family has temporarily fallen on hard times, and who is therefore being sent to Bajipur with a view to an advantageous marriage. After a terrible ambush, Maya and Lucinda start to trust each other, and become friends. All through the novel, the author carefully shows the differences between the two women, but also the similarities - for example the fact that both of the women are being "sold off".

Also accompanying the ladies are Slipper the eunuch who at first appears to be Maya's servant, but turns out to be something far more capricious, Lucinda's trouble making cousin Geraldo, and the two fix it men, Da Gama and Pathan who are entrusted with delivering the precious cargo to their new owners in tact.

As disaster strikes the caravan, relationships begin to form and bonds to strengthen, some that will become more solid than others, despite the religious and cultural differences between the characters. The symbolism is sometimes more subtle than others - for example, in the ambush Lucinda's clothing is lost. Gradually as Lucinda comes to feel more relaxed she begins to feel more confident in the more liberating saris, whilst also divesting herself of some of the more restrictive emotions and beliefs of Europeans as well.

This novel really did have it all - adventure, danger, political maneuverings, romance and the ending was different to what I was expecting it to be, whilst remaining true to the spirit of the book and was a satisfactory ending to the story and for the characters. This is the first book of a trilogy, and the second book, Tiger Claws, comes out in September. I hope that my library gets the second and third books as I have very much enjoyed my journey through mid 1600's India.

There were times when the episodes of violence and intrigue felt a bit contrived, but certainly for the most part, John Speed is obviously very knowledgeable about India and has written an entertaining book about a time and place full of mystique, glamour and intrigue.

I was interested to see a news article a couple of weeks after I read this book that talked about the temple prostitutes, and the fate that awaits them in modern India. Whilst as I understand it, it is illegal, but still happens particularly in the remoter parts of the country, and the women are left to fend for themselves in whatever way they can, often living in complete poverty towards the end of their days.

Rating 4/5


  1. Thank you for reviewing this one. It's definitely going on the wish list!

  2. Marg, thank-you for directing me to this wonderful blog. I really enjoyed your review. So much so, that I'm adding this book to my TBR list.

  3. Thanks for this perceptive and subtle review.

    John Speed (