Thursday, November 18, 2010


By John Masters

I do love a good book by an old Indian army hand. John Masters was pretty well steeped in the Raj and he created a series of novels about Englishmen in India from the 1600s to 1947. In this case the hero is Rodney Savage (in Masters’ novels the Savages have a family tradition of serving in India). He finds himself, his family, and the army he loves caught up in the Great Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. More aptly described as a war of independence, most of the Bengal army and many North Indian rulers joined in a bloody, but unsuccessful bid to oust the British from India. 

The tale builds slowly, quite slowly actually, depicting the simmering discontent of the sepoys, the native soldiers who served Britain and the ennui of the over-refined British officers, civil servants, and memsahibs who formed the ruling class. I for one found the discontent a little underplayed, and the ennui rather overplayed. But once the flag goes up it’s tally-ho and off to a pukka scrimmage jaldi!

Masters takes the issues of the Mutiny seriously, the mutineers are not mindless, murdering drones, and the Brits are often closer to serial killers than enlightened stewards of the natives’ welfare. Even so the result doesn’t quite come off artistically, as if Masters was a little too focused on 1947 than on 1857. Masters is idealistic and deeply knowledgeable about the Raj, where a bit of distance might have served better. It’s a good novel, though for my money the best I’ve seen about the Mutiny is The Siege of Krishnapur.

Really cool ‘50s (1950s, not 1850s) era cover illustration: Savage with shirt open, naked, bloody whip-lashed mem-sahib at his feet, demure begum in foreground. BONUS: a glossary, you’ll need it!
-Dave Hardy


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