Dangerous Creatures Escaping With the Loot

An excellent piece of engaging historical fiction and a fun but perhaps over-elaborate middle-school fantasy.

Issue #54, Sunday 3 December 2023

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Loot by Tania James

I spotted this book on the long-list for the 2023 U.S. National Book Awards, and it looked intriguing so I got it from the library.

It's a piece of historical fiction, and it's about historical events in India which I knew nothing about. Though there are admittedly some violent and distressing incidents in it, overall the story has a warm, engaging feel as the life-journey of the main character draws you in.

We start in the city of Srirangapatna, part of the Kingdom of Mysore in India, in the year 1794, when it was under the rule of Tipu Sultan Fath Ali Khan, who was at that time loosely allied to France.

The protagonist of the story is a young boy called Abbas, who works as a woodcarver for his father Yusuf Muhammad. As well as his rather boring everyday work, Abbas also loves to make little wooden toys, some of which come to the attention of the wife of Tipu Sultan, and he begins to make some of his toys specifically at her request. In this way he comes to the notice of Tipu Sultan himself.

Tipu Sultan orders Abbas to come to him, and Abbas is terrified, particularly after he discovers that Tipu's wife has betrayed him. But the king doesn't want to have Abbas killed, but rather to work as an assistant to a French inventor, Lucien Du Leze. Du Leze has been living in Mysore for some time, after fleeing his home in Rouen in France after the French Revolution and has found a patron in Tipu Sultan. The king wants Du Leze to build a life-size automaton of a tiger attacking a British soldier.

One doesn't say "no" to an absolute ruler like Tipu Sultan, particularly if you are so lowly a person as Abbas, and so he starts work with Du Leze to build the contraption, learning a great deal as he does, but always aware of how much there is left to learn.

In the background of all of this, however, is the war with the British—well, the British and the East India Company—which eventually leads to the siege of Srirangapatna. Tipu Sultan dies in the attack, and young Abbas only barely survives himself. Du Leze also escapes the violence and offers to take Abbas back home with him to Rouen and teach him the trade of clockmaking, but Abbas needs to tend to his dying father and reluctantly refuses. Abbas is very talented and ambitious, yearning to shake the world with his abilities. But his situation in life is such that this seems impossible without the aid of a teacher and mentor like Lucien Du Leze.

In the aftermath of the siege, the victorious British divide up the spoils. Among these is the mechanical tiger automaton, which is awarded as a prize to a Colonel Selwyn, who takes it back home to England as a gift to his wife.

Abbas stows away aboard a British merchant ship, on which he is forced to serve for several years before finally reaching Rouen, only to find that Lucien Du Leze has recently died, leaving his shop to his adopted daughter Jehanne, the mixed-race child of a friend of his in India. She is struggling to make ends meet, and Abbas doesn't have sufficient skills to continue the clockmaking business.

So between them they come up with an audacious plan to get back the mechanical tiger from Colonel Selwyn's widow. How this plan works out occupies the remainder of the book and introduces us to two more very interesting characters in Lady Selwyn and her man of business, "Rum", another ex-patriot Indian like Abbas.

The point of view in the book smoothly shifts as needed: from Abbas, to Thomas (a midshipman who serves with him aboard the merchantman), to Jehanne, to Lady Selwyn, to Rum. All of this makes a harmonious whole rather than a disjointed narrative.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it was very educational—it's based solidly on true historical events—and also highly entertaining and at times very moving. There's a tender, slowly-developing love story; and it also has quite a lot of things to say about how non-white people like Abbas and Rum were treated by white society at the time (and of course even still today).

Highly recommended.

Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell

I have to say that I was disappointed by this book, which is aimed at the middle-school level of children.

I was disappointed because I've really liked some of Rundell's other books for the same audience, particularly Rooftoppers, which I thought was great. Other excellent books by her were The Girl Savage and The Explorer. Rundell is also an academic, and recently published a scholarly book on the Elizabethan-era poet John Donne. I haven't yet read that one, though.

However, Impossible Creatures is her first real fantasy novel: her other children's books, while they deal with unlikely occurrences, are basically realist in their plots and subject matter. I have to think that in this book Rundell just hasn't quite got her head right when it comes to writing fantasy, she seems here to have gone over the top in inventing fantastic beasts, places and plot devices. I'm hoping she'll settle down in future books.

Having said all that, there are some things to like in Impossible Creatures, and it starts pretty well. We're introduced to two young people: Christopher Forrester, a boy in his early teens living in England, and a girl called Mal Arvorian, who is from... somewhere different. It is, of course, inevitable that Christopher ends up meeting Mal and travelling to the "somewhere different", which turns out to be a set of magical islands in mid-Atlantic, hidden from the rest of the modern world, and where magical power and fantastic creatures still survive, though something there has started to go wrong.

So far so good, and I did like the mirrored starting chapters for the two children. Christopher's starts: "It was a fine day until something tried to eat him"; and Mal's begins: ""It was a fine day until somebody tried to kill her".

The problem for me developed further in the book, when we seem to keep tripping over one different species of fantastic animal after another. Rundell hasn't invented all of these: many of them are admittedly described in various legends from different countries, and we have familiar ones like unicorns and dragons. But the continued introduction of more and more of these creatures in the story just became excessive and unnecessary to my mind. It seems like every time the characters turn a corner there's another new type of beast.

Then there's The Quest which Mal and Christopher have to go on, and this started to feel like one of those old text adventures like Zork: in order to reach the ultimate goal, they have to get this particular magical item; to get that they have to go this particular place; to get there they have to get this particular thing; in order to get that they have to talk to this particular person; and so on and so on: just a long chain of seemingly arbitrary hoops they have to jump through.

So the middle of the book I found quite tedious and annoying.

It ends on a stronger, though quite sad note; and though I believe it's meant to be the start of a trilogy it's not one of those books (like The Will of the Many) which makes little sense without you feeling you need to read the follow-ups: on the contrary it would work perfectly well if you stop with this one. Which I think I will do.

Currently Reading

House of Odysseus by Claire North

I’m only about a chapter into this, the second book in the author’s trilogy “The Songs of Penelope”. The first book, Ithaca, had the goddess Hera as narrator. This one has Aphrodite narrating, and I’m not sure that’s working. Still, I’ll definitely keep going.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann

This is a collection of essays, or rather articles by this investigative journalist. Most originally appeared in The New Yorker, a couple in The Atlantic or elsewhere. He’s an excellent writer, and his book-length non-fiction pieces such as The Lost City of Z, Killers of the Flower Moon and The Wager have received many plaudits.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Pretty good “hard” SF by this prolific author. I’m listening to it as an audiobook, so my progress is fairly slow, but enjoying it so far.

Waiting on the Shelf

These were just casually picked up at my local library. Might have trouble getting to them before they have to go back.

And that’s all for this issue. See you next time! In the meantime, if you would like to support my efforts, please feel free to buy me a coffee.

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