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Book Review: The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov

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The Collector of Worlds blends factual and fictionalized accounts of the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton was a 19th century British colonial officer, able to assimilate himself into indigenous cultures. He had an uncanny ability to learn new languages at a rapid pace. 

Iliya Troyanov, the author, has himself had an impressive multicultural career. In addition to having written several books — including Along the Ganges, which was impressively listed among Condé Nast Traveler's best travelogues ever — Troyanov has lived in Germany, Kenya, India, and South Africa, and currently resides in Vienna, Austria.

This novelized account of Burton's life starts with a ship's rough entry into turbulent India, foretelling the rough life Burton would find there as a British naval officer, appalled at the sight of the native soldiers he'd be commanding. I was drawn in by the author's own knowledge of Indian life and culture, taking us along on these startling 19th century explorations.

Burton, a true Renaissance man, was far ahead of his time. As a prolific writer himself, Burton's travels books served as an introduction to worlds beyond Europe. As readers, we admire his drive to educate himself and his respect for servants. Most intriguing is his intellectual curiosity and quiet observation of cultures not seen by many Europeans of his day.

Troyanov's skilled story-telling never wavers, in this 450-page book. Lush with description and action, the compelling dialog moves you along fast. The Collector of Worlds won the fiction prize in the 2006 Germany's Leipzig Book Fair and the Berlin Literary Award.

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