Although the novel bears the subtitle “The Thrilling Tale of the King who Mastered the Seas, Rajendra Chola I,” the narrative is told mostly from the point of view of the man over whom he triumphed in 1025, and whose life was subsequently lost to history. When Maharaja Sangrama, the king of the mighty Srivijaya Empire, is defeated and taken prisoner by Chola’s forces, he is transported to their capital city, where he spends his captivity recording his experiences, the region’s history, as well as his feelings for the enigmatic friend who alone relieves his isolation. Interestingly, Sangrama’s first-person account is complemented by a third-person narrative relating the adventures of his daughter, who is left to fend for herself after the surrender of Srivijava and must endure a perilous odyssey through hostile territory before she can reveal her true identity and marry Airlangga, the founder of the Kingdom of Kahuripan, at whose palace she arrives after several hair-raising adventures. Fortunately, Dharmaprasadottunggadewi’s marriage to Airlangga turns out to be happy, as her husband designates her Queen Regent, and their eldest daughter, Sanggramawijaya, heiress to the throne.
Inspired by the Serajah Melayu, the legendary Malay Annals that recount the establishment of the first great Southeast Asian maritime empire, The Conqueror is a sweeping tale that takes us back to the mythical period before the European invasions and to a time when the Malay, Tamil, Chinese, and Arabic cultures founded a trading empire that found no equal in the world. This history is told in the stirring voice of Sangrama, whose descriptions and comments evoke a vanished world for the reader, but even more stirring is the account of Dharmaprasadottunggadewi’s adventures, and her marriage to Airlangga, which, based on mutual respect and esteem, rather than passion, has the capacity to be deeply moving. Highly recommended.