Exotically detailed and sprinkled with derring-do, Carter’s historical novel follows an inscrutable old hand and a well-intentioned rookie on a quest that takes them deep into the heart of colonial India.
Part manhunt for a controversial poet who has disappeared in feared Thuggee bandit country, part panorama of early Victorian India under the rule of the Honorable East India Company, British journalist Carter’s debut is rooted in an impressively evoked period setting. The year is 1837, and the Indian subcontinent, ruled for profit by the British, is beginning to show signs of the discontent that will boil over as mutiny a couple of decades later. Ensign William Avery, an officer in the company’s army, is in Calcutta waiting for his summons to a cavalry regiment when he is given an alternative mission: to support Jeremiah Blake, a company man who has gone native, on a secret mission to find Xavier Mountstuart, the famous Scottish writer whose latest book has fed into the mood of unrest and who has broken an agreement to leave India. Avery and Blake’s journey is Carter’s chance to unroll a swathe of colorful background detail, from bazaars and tiger hunts to spectacular feasts. And along the way, as Blake questions Avery’s assumptions about company policy and the natives, a light is shed on the corrupt, exploitative core of colonialism. Action is intermittent until the book’s later chapters, when an assassination attempt is followed by a capture, a chase, a double cross and a fight to the death. Avery and Blake are simultaneously transformed into “the toast of India” and given a tough lesson in political expediency.
Making pleasing use of the developing bromance/adventure formula and a wealth of research, Carter delivers an engaging, skeptical, modern take on empire.