Perennial best-selling author Perry (A Sunless Sea, 2012, etc.) once again shows why her work resonates with readers in this short Christmas story that doesn’t rely on all of the usual yuletide tricks to make it sing.
Victor Narraway serves with the British army in 1857 war-torn India. Going into the service wasn’t his idea, though; his father decided it would turn him into a man. Young Narraway now wears the insignia of lieutenant in a troubled country ruled by the British Empire. Recent uprisings among the Indian people have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Englishmen and their families, and the escape of a prisoner led to the tragic ambush of a patrol. It’s that escape and patrol that now occupy Narraway, even though he wasn’t even part of the garrison when the attack took place. His senior officer, Col. Latimer, who will preside over the court martial of a suspect in the case, has appointed him to represent the soldier, a medical orderly named John Tallis, who stands accused of conspiring with an Indian traitor to facilitate his escape and the targeting of the patrol. Narraway is only given a couple of days to prepare for the trial, which he understands he will lose: Tallis is the only soldier who cannot be accounted for during the time that the escape took place. But when Narraway visits with Tallis, he is struck by how much he likes the forlorn and ultimately doomed medical orderly and believes he is innocent of the crime. With little hope of saving the man before the onset of Christmas, Narraway sets out to prove his innocence and surprises even himself with his resourcefulness. Perry avoids all of the mawkish pitfalls that are usually the hallmark of holiday books by choosing an unconventional setting and decidedly different approach. Rather than leaning on sentiment, she writes an honest, though somewhat grim, story that captures the essence of 19th-century India and the character of a compassionate man.
A novel approach to an oft-explored subject, this tale will delight Perry’s fans and bring her new ones.