Initially absorbing in its neo-Dickensian tale of London low-life and Australian prison-exile, this mid-Victorian saga soon loses much of its grip--as Mather (The Memsahib, etc.) leads his narrator-hero through a lively but shapeless series of Asian adventures. He's Ross Stafford, orphaned along with older brother Neil--an attractive but hot-tempered, swinish fellow who precedes Ross up to London, enters a life of minor crime, and hooks up with a sometime prostitute, rough but tender-hearted Caerwen. Ross himself tries to make an honest clerking living and to steer Neil straight; but when Neil and Caerwen are arrested for theft and shockingly sentenced to 14 years' penal servitude, loyal Ross does the near-impossible: he follows them to Australia, rescues them both (Caerwen is killed, however, by highway robber-rapists), and--after chases, bribes, and betrayals--Neil and Ross escape from Down Under on a Chinese junk headed for Hong Kong. Thereafter, disappointingly, the adventures become far less focused: the brothers go to work for a half-Chinese trader (as Europeans they can get vital licenses); Ross rescues the trader's beauteous, 3/4-white daughter from an opium-rebellion in Canton; foul Neil steals the daughter away but is shot by the trader; Ross flees for England but is waylaid mid-voyage ("" 'The Black Hole of Calcutta!' I gasped in horror. 'Good God! But what am I doing here.' ""); Ross joins the British India Army, later deserts (for good reasons), and trains a Rajah's private brigade--just about in time for the Sepoy Mutiny. . . . If Ross were a bit more of a rounded or sympathetic character, perhaps the linear, meandering, coincidence-ridden plotting here wouldn't be so conspicuous. But unfortunately he's your basic noble stick, and the supporting cast harks back as well to boys'-adventure pulp; so, despite that promisingly textured beginning, this ends up as no more nor less than smooth, professional, intermittently atmospheric colonial derringdo--classy comic-book adventure.