Victory City by Salman Rushdie

I found Victory City because it was voted one of the best fantasy books of 2023 by the Goodreads community. Being vaguely familiar with Salman Rushdie, him writing a fantasy book struck me as slightly incongruous. But I’ve been wanting to expand my horizons, so I decided to give it a go.

"Victory City" book cover

Although I can’t really argue with the fantasy label per se, this book is definitely not fantasy in the traditional definition of the genre. I would describe it as a fantastical story which has more in common with classic fairy tales.

Rushdie tells the story of the sharp rise and untimely demise of the South Indian empire of Bisnaga. Set in the middle age, spanning the years from early in the 1300s to late 1600s, the story is a creative take on the Vijayanagara Empire. In the centre of it all is Pampa Kampana, a human representation of the empire’s soul and story.

After suffering a great personal tragedy early in childhood, Kampana is blessed by her namesake goddess, Pampa, and left with an assortment of divine abilities. With the use of these gifts, she helps a pair of cowherds, who happen to be brothers, found what grows into the Bisnagan empire.

This is my first experience with Rushdie as a writer. His language and style is very different from what I’ve grown comfortable with over the last few years. He writes in an unhinged, almost rambling style. With sentences spanning multiple pages (yes I have a large font on my kindle e-reader and my wife thinks it is hilarious) I had a difficult time following along at first. Take this sentence, from the opening pages of the book, as an example:

This is that story, retold in plainer language by the present author, who is neither a scholar nor a poet but merely a spinner of yarns, and who offers this version for the simple entertainment and possible edification of today’s readers, the old and the young, the educated and the not so educated, those in search of wisdom and those amused by folly, northerners and southerners, followers of different gods and of no gods, the broad-minded and the narrow-minded, men and women and members of the genders beyond and in between, scions of the nobility and rank commoners, good people and rogues, charlatans and foreigners, humble sages, and egotistical fools.

A bit to wrap your head around. But I quickly grew into the rhythm of the writing, and enjoyed Rushdie’s plentiful way of storytelling. It is perfectly matched to the story being told, and full of both delightful and insightful passages.

In particular, Rushdie’s introspection on art and creation stood out, not least because of his own history:

Once you had created your characters, you had to be bound by their choices. You were no longer free to remake them according to your own desires. They were what they were and they would do what they would do. This was ‘free will’. She could not change them if they did not want to be changed.

The book is filled with a multitude of characters. Some are interesting, others less so, but in the end all of them save Kampana herself, come and go without much fanfare. Such is the passing of time in a great empire, an observation Rushdie both articulates and pokes fun at within the story.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. But the experience, I feel, suffers a little on account of the narrow scope of my reading over the last few years. There are lessons, parallels and allegories here, I sense, that are just beyond my reach. 

With that in mind, it feels ridiculous to rate the book. So I’ve decided that my rating here is not of the book itself, but rather my personal experience of the book. It’s not that I didn’t like it. Rather, it’s that it was a bit too much work for a simple guy like myself, and, in the end, the payout wasn’t quite in proportion.

Rating: 3/5


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