The Stairway Guide’s Daughter

Written by John Burgess
Review by J. Lynn Else

In 12th-century Cambodia during the golden age of the Angkor civilization, the divine right of succession for temple abbots is from an abbot to his nephew (born from the abbot’s sister). However, the current abbot has a different plan and is slowly restructuring the religious foundation in order to ensure his son inherits. Far below this brewing religious upheaval, Jorani is daughter to the stairway guide who leads pilgrims up a two-thousand-step stairway to Preah Vihear, an astonishing cliff-top temple. When she accidentally witnesses the abbot’s son burning texts, she quickly becomes embroiled in a struggle that spreads across the land and even brings into question the power held by the current king in Angkor. When Jorani is called to become servant of the head abbess, she finds herself on the opposing side of the abbot’s war of succession.

Burgess does a marvelous job with his characters, whose mindsets are anchored beautifully in the historical culture. Unfortunately, almost every event is told to our main character, Jorani, instead of experienced by her. While I enjoyed Jorani’s vividly realized voice, if your main character is not an active part of your story’s plot, a different character needs to be the focus. The story arc is epic in scope, and I wish Burgess would have expanded his narration to include other characters with a direct impact on the outcome of events. Burgess’s knowledge of Cambodian history and culture is impressive, and I wanted to feel that time period with both heart and mind. Instead, everything I needed to know was given to me in a succinct little package without any emotional weight. Nothing is unexpected because readers are given all the answers immediately. While historically and visually interesting, the storyline just does not engage the reader.