The Governor’s Daughter is a 2017 period detective thriller from newcomer Sambath Meas. It was published by Red Empress Publishing, a full-service publisher that began in early 2017 offering traditional and new services for our authors to help them succeed and stand out in an ever-changing market. This is the first novel in a planned series by Meas, called The Mysteries of Colonial Cambodia.
This book is part Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and part Jane Austen, and for those who aren’t sure if that’s high praise or not: it is very, very high praise. The book takes the conventions (and the tropes) of the ‘female-lead period-piece’ sub genre and turns it on its head by putting the protagonist, Anjali Chinak, in a traditionally male role (for the time period) as private investigator.
There’s a lot of tension in this book, and Meas pens it masterfully. There is both the implicit tension of the ticking-clock narrative, in which Chinak must race against the clock to save the man she’s fallen in love with from being put to death after he is charged with the murder she is trying to solve… but there’s more than those obvious tensions. There are societal tensions here as well. There are gender-norm tensions and racial tensions that slither throughout this narrative and draw the reader into the issues at hand: while reading it I found myself parsing my feelings on each issue, and the setting of the fictionalized 1920’s lends just enough of a departure between the reader and those on the page that the reader can draw their own conclusions to each part.
I’m on the fence a to whether or not to call this an ‘alternate history’ novel or not. The feminist in me hates to do it, because the only thing ‘alternate’ about it is that Chinak is accepted — at any level — into forensic detective investigation at the time. This isn’t a Kenneth Tam-style alternate history, where it is revealed Canadian’s discovered a new planet in 1892. This is within the realm of possibility, but yet just outside it enough that it can’t be classified just as a Historical Thriller.
That’s always the problem with me and historicals, isn’t it? It came up during Knight’s Surrender, too: if the novel takes place in a world or time or society that’s pre-second-wave feminism, the novel can’t in with me: it’s either historically accurate and I dislike its treatment of women, or it treats women fairly and I take issue with the historical accuracy. This is my baggage, not the books, and I think Meas overcomes it amazingly: with just enough tweaks that you know that in this reality, which is not unlike our own, this is on the cusp of being accepted.
I love taking the Freudian method of dream analysis and applying it to literature. Quick/Dirty rundown: you take the part of the book that bothered you the most, then spin the analysis so that that is what the book is about. At least, what it’s about for you.
What ‘bothered’ me about The Governor’s Daughter were its tonal shifts. For the first half of the book, Meas doesn’t so much merge Conan Doyle and Jane Austen as much as she switches between them: one chapter will see Chinak investigating with vivid detail the foreign-object sexual assault of a murder victim, and the next she will be contemplating her love life with a friend as though her greatest concern is Mr. Darcy’s umbrella… but as always, i can make a strong case for this dichotomy being what the novel is about. It’s almost as if the novel shines a spotlight on how the male point-of-view dominates literature: because really, why is that perceived as a tone shift to me? If it were a detective novel by Dean Koontz, I wouldn’t be calling a scene depicting the character’s personal life and relationships tonally inconsistent, I’d be calling it character-building. Hell, much of my book Cinders is spent examining the juxtaposition between two crime-fighters personal lives and styles, not the case at hand. In that way, this novel is ‘about’ discrimination of capable women in historically-male fields: and Meas does a wonderful job crafting a thrilling adventure around that theme, whether she did so intentionally or not.
These are massive, deep themes that I could write an entire paper on — and may, actually. But even if you didn’t read the novel the same way, there’s an incredibly tense and gratifying story here. Meas is a gifted author, who knows the story she wants to tell and tells it well: theme and subtext are given their appropriate due, but never invade the narrative obtrusively, a trick many of the most well-respected authors alive today have yet to master.
Part social commentary and part psychological thriller, I’d easily say this is on my list of one of the top novels published in 2017 thus far. I urge everyone to pick it up and to keep their eye on Sambath Meas in the coming months and years and a rising star in the indie book market.
‘Other Indie’ is a recurring series of articles on Engen Books in which authors highlight the best in independent publishing, in the hopes of helping readers break through the cluster of books they may not be sure about in an age when anyone can publish via digital formats. Engen Books is an independent small-press publishing company based in St. John’s Newfoundland and is proud to highlight the talent of independent authors not our own. The Governor’s Daughter is © 2017 Sambath Meas. This review is © 20177 Matthew LeDrew. ‘Other Indie’ banner photo credit: Steve Lake.