Set in the 19th century, this novel follows the lives of Protestant Anglo-Irish landowners William Winship and his adopted son, James, mixing fictional characters with historical figures.
Well-written with a mix of action, adventure, politics and historical detail, McCarthy’s novel throws readers right into the action, as young William faces a duel over his fiancee. His opponent, Lord Sudbury, will, along with his family, remain a persistent nemesis to the Winships. Most of the book, however, focuses on James as he grows from boy to man. He’s actually Seamus Tobin, the son of William’s gardener. After multiple tragedies, including the deaths of Seamus’ parents and of William’s wife and son, William adopts Seamus, Anglicizes his name and sets him on the path of a proper Protestant gentleman, including stops at Eton and Oxford. James, however, has a penchant for trouble. After being caught in a basement nightclub, he’s expelled from Oxford through the Sudburys’ machinations. James opts for a military career to redeem himself, becoming an officer of the 10th Kings Lancers in India. There, he again falls in with the wrong sort, amasses debt and is drummed out in disgrace. He finally reaches his stride in the Jenkins Horse, an unconventional regiment whose members wear native garb and take on many Indian customs. While reining in his own shortcomings, he demonstrates valor in combat. Along the way, McCarthy portrays some fascinating, well-drawn characters: Oliver Locke, an outrageous dandy styled after Oscar Wilde; Reg Archer, a dashing, womanizing officer; Rajah Ali, an Anglophile Indian prince who delights in philosophical discourse; and Paddy Tierney, an Irish sergeant who speaks endlessly of taking back Ireland through land ownership. Ali and Tierney, in particular, help shape James’ budding support for Irish home rule. When James returns to Ireland, he enters politics as a Tory, but the racism of his own party and his growing respect for Charles Stewart Parnell, founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party, help solidify his political stance. James switches parties and is eventually chosen by Parnell to be his successor. What’s most impressive is the way James’ views on Irish independence develop—slowly, logically and realistically, either through significant interactions with other characters or his own observations.
A few liberties taken with the facts, but an excellent choice for readers interested in Anglo-Irish history.