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.
©2015 Recorded by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company (P)2015 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
"The Strangler Vine is a splendid novel with an enthralling story, a wonderfully drawn atmosphere, and an exotic mystery that captivated me." (Bernard Cornwell)
You can't away with being Rudyard Kipling anymore. Novels set in 19th century India can present British characters as protagonists, but if they're uncritically accepting of British rule and treating 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 sort of 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 else 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 sort of historical mystery 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).
I mainly read mysteries, and sci-fi, sometimes with a dose of humor, and I love the BBC. I enjoy the hidden gems more than the best-sellers.
OK, so you need more convincing than I gave you in the review title:
I was immediately drawn into this tale by the amazing work of Alex Wyndham. (I actually checked to see if I had missed that Simon Vance, my favorite reader, was the narrator.) By the end of The Strangler Vine, Wyndham may have unseated Vance for that grand honor. Every character is distinct; changes in accent and tone are managed so skillfully I soon forgot that I was hearing only one man's voice. Wyndham even manages to read the the few female characters in the book without making them sound silly, something I have heard very few male narrators do.
Of course, a gifted narrator is only part of the equation for a brilliant audio book. M. J. Carter creates a sense of place immediately. I have read other books set in Colonial India, but none that made it seem so real. Through Carter's characters Avery and Blake, we see two opposing view points on the Company's presence in India. The young Avery's loyalty to his county is laudable, but leads him to several dangerous blunders. Because of his sincerity and naivety, however, his mistakes never make him seem ridiculous. Don't we all long for someone or something in which we can place unquestioning trust? Blake long ago lost his enchantment with Company rule and represents a darker point of view.
While the mystery is centered around Blake and Avery's mission to find a missing British poet, it soon becomes apparent that much more is going on than any one person is told. Several times, I felt (sadly) that the book was almost over only to find that I was about half through, two-thirds through, still had two hours to go... Yet never did the book seem to drag on for no reason. Just when I thought that a conclusion was near, a twist took us (both our heroes and me) in a new directions, and it never felt contrived.
Carter obviously wants her readers to enjoy a dashing adventure in one of the most mysterious settings available without romanticizing the British subjugation of India. At the same time, she never gets up on a soap box. On occasion, I had a few, "Huh... I never knew that" moments; she managed to teach me some things about the British Raj without ever interfering with the flow of her story.
My husband and I generally like quite different books, but as soon as I finished, I recommended this to him, and we listened to it together. He loved it just as much as I did, and I enjoyed it every bit as much on a second listening as I had initially. In fact, on second listening, I realized that it was an even better book than I had realized at first.
I have just over 1,000 books in my library, and this easily makes my Top 10 List.
Stop wasting time; get this book! If you've considered this book, you won't regret it.
This book is engaging from the start. I was not very familiar with the policies and practices of the East India Company (I knew of its existence but not the extent of its power) and I found the historical information in this book incredibly interesting. Add to that a plot and characters that are intriguing and you have an entertaining and educational read. It's action packed and I thought the pacing was perfect.
I did not care for the end. I'm not the type that needs s happy ending, but I felt a bit short changed by the ending. I was hoping for more.
The narration is excellent.
This is an exciting and fascinating story of the British East India Company in India. It never loses its fast pace and there are surprising plot twists. The reader is so good, including his use of different voices and accents for the different characters, that I think I would have enjoyed it less had I read it in a print version.
I heartily recommend this great adventure story.
As for the narration of Strangler Vine, Alex Wyndham is superb! I wish he would narrate more audio books.
The story itself is enthralling and educational. Although fictitious, it is based on research and written histories from the time of The East India Company and Britain's attempts to rule India in the early to mid 1800's. I had feared the story might be a bit tedious, however it turned out I was compelled from beginning to end.
I liked the historical background, and the setting in colonial India. The (2) main characters, William Avery and Jeremiah Blake, are also interesting. But the actual plot was too convoluted, and I'd classify this as more of an adventure than a mystery. I liked it enough to listen to the next book in the series. Excellent narrator !
This beautifully narrated, well written story of India in thrall to the East India Company before the British government took the country over explains a little known bit of history which I had heard before but had not retained. I will never forget it now – the invention of the cult of thugee, the worship of the Indian goddess Kali, in order to support the idea that India desperately needed the firm and civilizing hand of the British.
A well told story with exciting episodes. Impeccably read by the narrator, Alex Wyndham. This was the first performance of his I have listened to but I will look for others.
I think this book would appeal to fans of BBC India dramas as well as anyone who likes a good mystery/adventure. Some violence but not more than I could handle and I'm pretty delicate in that way. I highly recommend this selection!
Say something about yourself!
I just finished listening to Strangler Vine and have enjoyed every minute. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a series. Alex Wyndham does an amazing job with the story and the accents, making each character come alive. I'm hoping that Avery ends up back in England and continues to bring us adventures for many books to come.
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