There is a distinct feeling one gets while reading Tania James’ third novel: Someone needs to make this book into a movie. Steeped in the rich history of three nations and infused with a young man’s unshakable desire to do something grand, Loot is transportive storytelling at its best.
We begin in 1794, when India is still a nation of tiny kingdoms ruled by big egos, right on the cusp of British colonialism and the East India Company. India’s foremost king, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, is in his summer palace, conjuring yet another grand plan to impress his citizenry. His current fixation is to build a larger-than-life automaton of a growling tiger pouncing on a British soldier. To achieve this technological feat, Tipu calls on the expertise of 57-year-old Lucien du Leze, a homesick clockmaker and inventor who escaped the French Revolution only to find himself on the brink of another. Lucien in turn hires 17-year-old Abbas, the youngest son of a local woodworker and the heart of this story.
Abbas is kind, gentle and a bit rebellious. His woodcarving skills are unmatched, even though he doesn’t know that yet. Under Lucien’s tutelage, Abbas comes to terms with his gift and unearths his desire to use his craft to leave an unforgettable mark on the world. In that, he is much like his dreamy and determined king, but without the burden of defending the crown.
Tipu’s tiger automaton turns out to be a crowd-pleasing sensation, but not long after its unveiling, Tipu loses first his kingdom and then his life to the British. Lucien finds a way to escape to Rouen, France, leaving Abbas with an invitation to be his apprentice should he ever find a way to leave Mysore. The wooden tiger meets its own dreary fate as well, ending up in a musty, forgotten room in an old lady’s English castle. It’s the end of an era, but for Abbas, it’s just the beginning of an epic quest.
James’ plot is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration. Her supporting characters are woven with the same care and detail as her protagonist. All of this combines for a stimulating and informative novel, a must-read for adventurers, dreamers and lovers of history.