Book Review: Return of a King

Part of 2013 Reading Challenge: First Reads

Title: Return of a King
Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Bloomsburry Publishing Plc
ISBN: 978-1-4088-1830-5
Pages: 487
Genre: Non-Fiction
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Reviewed for: MySmartPrice


The line between fiction and real blurs as one digs more into the real. History exploring is one such real digging and unbelievable are the treasures that pop out. What better way to make that digging, into real-life history, fun than reading one of the best travel writers and historians of our times – William Dalrymple. The award-winning author of and is back, this time with a war tale of the still war-torn Afghanistan.

In travel and history writing at its best Dalrymple uses research well to tell this intriguing tale of the first afghan war. The references list in the book runs a good 65-odd pages which itself is testimony to the factual detailing in the book. Return of a King traces the story of the struggle for power seizing in the land of the Pashtuns, deadly valleys and rocky mountain passes. The afghan tribes, the Russians, the British and the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, all want just one piece of land – Afghanistan. The author takes us through 1809 to 1842 showcasing the whole spectrum. The political, cultural, geographical and military scenarios and the changed scenarios flow in a reel of historical happenings page after page enthralling and enticing the digger deeper and deeper.

The author transports the reader into the era of the great game. He begins with the ruling dynasty of the Sadozais and the ruler in 1809 Shah Shuja. We get to know what a flagging empire and grievous throne the Shah sits on when the British approach him with the hand of friendship. The British are no friends of the Afghan king; they just wish control over the land that connects Persia to their golden bird – India. The initially imagined and later on relevant threat of the Russians is what prompts them to send their officers for rece after rece to Afghanistan and the Shah. In come into play the Barakzais – archenemies of the Sadozais and entangled forever in the battle for power in the land of the Afghan tribes. Very soon the sophisticated and just Shah Shuja was replaced by an equally just but more popular and more brutal Dost Mohammad Khan. The Shah goes into exile in India with the help of his former friends the British after an ambush with Ranjit Singh who managed to acquire the Shah’s most prized possession – the Kohinoor. The Shah remained in exile for 30 long years, attempting a few failed attempts to seize back his throne, while Dost Mohammad ruled afghan tribes and the British kept vigil on Russian footsteps. While the Afghans were in a period of relative stability the British and the Russians were at their games of gaining Asian supremacy. The dam broke with Dost Mohammad receiving Russian envoy, Ivan Vitkevitch, confirming the British fears that the afghan was against British interests. The British seized Afghanistan and restored Shah Shuja on the throne. But a couple of year’s later rebellion broke out, jihad as they call it. The afghan tribes with minimum artillery and basic weapons routed the most mighty military power of the 19th century.

Though Dalrymple takes us on an in-depth nearly 500-paged journey through the war prone and war-torn land of Afghanistan – the narration never loses its impact, the interest is only deepened over the pages. The details, tale and the language are in perfect balance. The parallel he draws at the end comparing the best military powers of 19th as well as 21st centuries fighting the same tribes of the land of Afghanistan and being routed by them is the perfect masterstroke.

This book has the makings of it being the landmark book on the Afghan war and the era. William Dalrymple is a master historian and a beautiful storyteller; I intend to read more of his works from the past about the pasts he mostly writes on. Truly wish he had written our history books in school, history would then have featured amongst the favorite subjects. History buffs definitely Recommended. Others you may leave it in between, please do not insult the author and his 3 years of work.

Happy Reading.

William Dalrymple talks about Return of a King 

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