Shortly before the Crimean War, Robert Wilton, a Byronic giaour with a healthy spirit of fair play, goes to export English liberty to an underdog nation, Circassia, which is fighting for self-determination against the Czar. Instead of an embattled people, he finds an assembly of engaging but barbaric Tartar tribesmen, inept, inattentive, and divided in their warmaking. The Cossacks, too, are likable: feckless, Chekhovian exiles given to quotation and incomprehensible spats. No one is what they seem. Paka, a Circassian maid complete with buckskin chastity belt, allows him to seduce her so she can get away from sheep and chickens and lead a life of ease in a Constantinople harem. His trusted friend Hassan is revealed a traitor, unless the real villain is the fanatic Polish patriot Zletski or the Welsh missionary who has ended up living in a tree. Since there is no fighting, Robert spends his time observing local manners and scenery, giving unheeded advice, and trying to understand who is spying upon whom, a hopeless task, especially for the reader. Manipulated comically by all, Robert learns, but not much, in this would-be historical romp--a novel-of-manners cum travelogue that's hampered by a hero with an upper lip too stiff for hilarity and too loose for romance.