Penguin Books, 2014, 369 pages
India, 1837: William Avery is a young soldier with few prospects except rotting away in campaigns in India; Jeremiah Blake is a secret political agent gone native, a genius at languages and disguises, disenchanted with the whole ethos of British rule, but who cannot resist the challenge of an unresolved mystery. What starts as a wild goose chase for this unlikely pair - trying to track down a missing writer who lifts the lid on Calcutta society - becomes very much more sinister as Blake and Avery get sucked into the mysterious Thugee cult and its even more ominous suppression.
There are shades of Heart of Darkness, sly references to Conan Doyle, that bring brilliantly to life the India of the 1830s with its urban squalor, glamorous princely courts and bazaars, and the ambiguous presence of the British overlords - the officers of the East India Company - who have their own predatory ambitions beyond London's oversight.
Novels set in 19th century India can present British characters as protagonists, but if they're uncritically accepting of British rule and treat the Indians as heathen savages, there are probably going to be some words for the author about "colonialism" and "cultural appropriation," etc. I give M.J. Carter credit for willing to even go there at all, let alone write a novel centered around that most sensationalist and misunderstood Indian institution so beloved and misunderstood by Western writers, the Thuggee cult.
She manages to write a pretty good adventure tale that hearkens back to ye olden days while being just critical enough of British rule to placate modern sensibilities.
Set in the 1830s, when the British East India Company ruled India as a virtually autonomous government, before the Crown took over for good, The Strangler Vine starts by introducing us to William Avery, a young officer in the Company — brave, naive, prone to losing all his worldly possessions in card games, naturally in love with a woman who's out of his league. Avery is assigned to help an older India hand, Jeremiah Blake, go find a famous writer who's gone missing in northern India. Blake is a renegade, a legendary figure who now hates the Company and refuses all promotions or awards, but is still forced to occassionally do their bidding. He is not happy about being given young Avery as his sidekick, and Avery resents being treated as an unwanted tagalong.
As they proceed north, the author presents a colorful description of Indian life, complete with opium stalls, garish and splendid Rajas' courts, elephants, tigers, and of course, Thuggees.
According to popular legend, the Thuggees were a cult of organized robbers and murderers dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. They were a notorious scourge throughout India, and the British spent a lot of effort, and killed a lot of people, trying to exterminate them. More recent scholarship has cast this popular history into doubt — did the Thuggees really exist? If they did, were they ever really so vast and dangerous, and were they really some sort of fanatical suicide cult, or were they just a bunch of brigands like you'll find in wild regions everywhere in the world?
The Strangler Vine tackles this controversy as Blake and Avery head deep into Thuggee territory in search of a writer who was researching them. At its heart, the book is a historical mystery and bromance that sets up the two protagonists as buddies for future Anglo-Indian adventures. There is skullduggery, scheming, and double-crossing on the part of both Indians and British, and plenty of historical flavor (including an Afterword by the author).
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