Review: The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye

The term ‘sweeping epic’ is used so often it’s become a cliché, but it’s actually an accurate description of The Far Pavilions. M. M. Kaye takes us on a journey across 19th century India and Afghanistan, during which we witness some of the major turning points in the history of those two countries.

Ashton Pelham-Martyn is born in India, the son of British professor Hilary Pelham-Martyn and his wife Isobel. When both of his parents die within a few years of each other, the four year-old Ash is brought up by Sita, the wife of his father’s Hindu groom, unaware that he is not actually Indian. Several years later, after Sita’s death, Ash learns the truth about his birth and is sent to school in England. Eventually he returns to India to serve in the British army, but finds that his loyalties are torn between his Indian friends and the members of his regiment. The Far Pavilions is the story of Ash’s struggle to find his identity.

At the heart of the story is a forbidden romance between Ash and the Hindu princess, Anjuli. However, that’s only one aspect of the book. Non-romance fans will enjoy the action and adventure, descriptions of military life or simply learning more about 19th century British-ruled India. Most of the battles and other historical events mentioned in the book did actually take place and several of the characters, such as Walter Hamilton and Louis Cavagnari, were real historical figures – you may find it interesting to do some research as you read.

Of all the historical fiction books I’ve read, this is one of the most detailed and well researched. Whilst reading this book I’ve learned a huge amount about 19th century British India, from the names of mountains and rivers, details of battles and mutinies, facts about Hindu and Islamic culture, right down to the various types of flora and fauna. We encounter a large number of Indian words and phrases (most are explained either directly in the text or in the glossary at the back of the book) which feels natural and adds to the authenticity of the story. M. M. Kaye spent a lot of time living in India which explains how she was able to write so convincingly about the country and its people. It’s also interesting that although the author was British, she uses various characters in the novel to explore conflicting opinions on whether British rule was a good or a bad thing for India.

At more than 950 pages it does sometimes feel as if the book will never end, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’s one of those books that pulls you into the story so much that you don’t really want to reach the last page and leave behind the characters you’ve spent so much time with. However, the main storyline comes to a natural end at around page 700 and the book could easily have finished at this point in my opinion. The final 200 or so pages deal with the Second Anglo-Afghan War which is still interesting to read about but could have been the subject of a separate book.

The Far Pavilions is one of my all-time favourite historical fiction novels.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 960/Publisher: Penguin/Year: 1978/Source: My own copy bought newThis review is part of my Great Books series.

17 thoughts on “Review: The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye

  1. Ash says:

    What a great find! I’m vastly interested in India so I will definitely have to put this on my list. Might be a good book to read over the summer.

  2. Aarti says:

    I have this one on my shelf but haven’t read it, partly because it’s SO BIG. But if you think it worthy of five stars, I’ll have to give it a go some time 🙂

  3. Jenny Girl says:

    Wow! 5 stars! Although it’s a chunkster, all of the detail is something I go for. Learning about other cultures and their history. Thanks for the great review.

  4. Helen says:

    Jenny – Yes, there’s an amazing amount of detail in the book, and the story itself is great too. I highly recommend it. 🙂

  5. Miss Moppet says:

    I read this some years ago and although I enjoyed it, I can’t see myself reading it again. I liked Ash but I thought Juli was a bit bland. I liked the other one, what was her name, Shushila.

    We have a few challenges in common! As well as the Chunkster, I’m doing Year of the Historical, 18th & 19th Century Women Writers, All About the Brontes and Our Mutual Read. Or rather, I’m not doing the last three, since I haven’t quite started yet!

    My excuse – I’m still deep into my first chunkster, When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman.

  6. Helen says:

    Good luck with all the challenges! I haven’t made much progress yet either in some of them. I read a lot of chunksters which reduces the number of books I can get through. I’ve never read any Sharon Kay Penman books yet but I’ve got The Sunne in Splendour on my tbr pile – hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

  7. chasingbawa says:

    I’ve heard so much about this book and have seen it in various libraries growing up, but never thought to read it (probably because it’s so big!) But I’m getting more interested in South Asia colonial history, and it sounds amazing.

  8. SocrMom78 says:

    I remember watching the TV miniseries of this book when I was in middle school and I loved the book itself all the way up to where Ash rescues Juli from the suttee, but I could never get into the book after that part, so I’ve never finished the book but would like to someday.

  9. Helen says:

    chasingbawa – If you’re interested in South Asia I’m sure you’d enjoy this book. I learned such a lot about the history of India and Afghanistan. It is a very big book, though (almost 1000 pages) – although I was enjoying it, it seemed to take forever to read.

    SocrMom78 – I found the final part less interesting too, when the focus of the book moves away from Ash and Juli. By the way, what did you think of the TV series? I bought it on DVD but although I love the book, I just couldn’t get into the miniseries and still haven’t watched it all the way through.

  10. Kaye says:

    I read this years ago and really enjoyed it so much that at the last library sale, I picked up a copy for .13 cents. It’s on the keeper shelf and I hope to revisit it at some point.
    Wonderful review!

  11. SJ says:

    I read and enjoyed this book, for the most part, but her Shadow of the Moon is much better. I also enjoy her mysteries. She wrote a three volume memoir about her life in India and China which was very interesting; the titles are: The Sun in the Morning, Golden Afternoon, and Enchanted Evening. The first volume was the best of the three, I thought. My daughters enjoyed The Ordinary Princess when they were small.

    • Helen says:

      I’m actually reading Death in Berlin now – I just started it yesterday. I’ve been looking forward to reading more of the mysteries, as so far the only one I’ve read is Death in Kashmir, which I loved. It’s good to know that you think Shadow of the Moon is even better than The Far Pavilions, as I still have that one to read too.

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