Set in the reign of one of the mightiest kings of the time, Empire brings alive the glorious Chola dynasty and culture in all its glory and might during Rajendra Chola’s reign. Dominantly, a patriarchal society, the book brings a fresh perspective by narrating the story of the warrior who is not only female but also not a Chola by birth. Sacrificed as a peace offering, Aremis – the eleven-year-old girl – is given to the Chola kingdom by the Greeks to be raised as a warrior. Thus, begins the intertwined story of Aremis, the prisoner of war and Anantha, the high-ranking commander in the Chola Empire who negotiates the surrender of Aremis with the Greeks.
Opening with the scene of war, the narrative quickly shifts to Aremis who though lonely and sad, trains rigorously to be an archer. Discontented, Aremis voices her treatment as an outsider by the people in the Chola kingdom, “They call me not by my name, but ‘Yavani’. The foreign one.” Even after being the subject of the prophecy who will bring glory to the king, she remains at margins throughout the book trying to belong, to achieve fame and success in the foreign land.
Through her female lead, Devi Yasodharan brings out the fractures in the Chola society. Despite being the greatest archer of the times, both the title and the prize evades her, for she is not only a female but also an outsider.
“’Will I make you famous if I win?’ I ask him. ‘More as a traitor than a hero, perhaps. If you beat all these strapping Chola youths, I really don’t know what anyone will think.”
Alternating with her narrative is the story of one of the most powerful man in the empire, Anantha, who though is one of the bastions of the Chola empire, does not necessarily represent its ethos of patriarchy and superstition. Entwined by their loyalty for the king, Aremis and Anantha cross paths – first to protect the king from the treachery and then to bring glory to him in the war.
Through an interesting cast of characters – Rajivan – the mean kid who abuses power, Perumbil – who like Varys in The Game of Thrones trades on information to maintain his power, Shrey – the stereotypical teacher who guides Aremis to her destiny, Mandakini – the woman who though at the margins of the society understands its power structure quite well;
the author brilliantly brings to life the Chola kingdom with its conspiracy and plotting, marketplace and commerce, taverns and courtesans, grandeur and pomposity.
The book leaves no stone unturned to sing songs about the power and wealth of the great Chola Empire. From the very beginning of the book, the wealth of the Chola kingdom is painted as a stuff of dreams – godowns containing the treasures, gold, silverware. Although the author establishes the legend of Rajendra Chola, the king always remains in shadows – planning war, bestowing justice, awarding punishment – he never comes across as a flesh and blood character.
An intriguing storyline coupled with a fast-paced narrative in the first part, however, the book starts to fall apart in the second half. While the first part is heavy with mystery and suspense surrounding the queen, court rivalries and political machinations, the focus in the second part of the book entirely shifts to the war. The author suddenly seems to lose interest in the plot weaved so intricately and is only concerned with winning the war which is rather done quickly and without much effort. The book ends rather hastily, leaving behind unanswered questions and unresolved sub-plots – the prophecy, the palace conspiracies, perilous schemes.
Even though open-ended, the book succeeds in evoking the 11th century Chola Empire with its vivid details and gripping storyline.