The BookBrowse Review

Published August 2, 2023

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Literary Fiction

History, Current Affairs and Religion

A Novel
by Tania James

Hardcover (13 Jun 2023), 304 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780593535974

A spellbinding historical novel set in the eighteenth century: a hero's quest, a love story, the story of a young artist coming of age, and an exuberant heist adventure that traces the bloody legacy of colonialism across two continents and fifty years. A wildly inventive, irresistible feat of storytelling from a writer at the height of her powers.

Abbas is just seventeen years old when his gifts as a woodcarver come to the attention of Tipu Sultan, and he is drawn into service at the palace in order to build a giant tiger automaton for Tipu's sons, a gift to commemorate their return from British captivity. His fate—and the fate of the wooden tiger he helps create—will mirror the vicissitudes of nations and dynasties ravaged by war across India and Europe.

Working alongside the legendary French clockmaker Lucien du Leze, Abbas hones his craft, learns French, and meets Jehanne, the daughter of a French expatriate. When Du Leze is finally permitted to return home to Rouen, he invites Abbas to come along as his apprentice. But by the time Abbas travels to Europe, Tipu's palace has been looted by British forces, and the tiger automaton has disappeared. To prove himself, Abbas must retrieve the tiger from an estate in the English countryside, where it is displayed in a collection of plundered art.



On the day he is taken from his family, Abbas is carving a peacock into a cabinet door. He drives his gouge tip through the rosewood, adjusting the pressure with his pointer finger. Grooves deepen, a beak appears. He moves on to sculpt feathers, stacked like scales. He excels at this task and has never been so bored in his life. Seated nearby on coir mats are his father and two older brothers, Junaid and Farooq. With a post braced against the inside of his knee, Junaid knocks out nuggets of unwanted wood with the tak-tak! of his mallet and chisel. Farooq sketches a pair of peacocks for a headboard. Their father sands a finished post, stopping every so often to shoot Abbas a warning look.

"No more of your toys," his father has told him in private. "Beds and cabinets, that's it. The toys only bring trouble."

Pausing to arch his back, Abbas is distracted by a pigeon fluttering down from a roof across the lane. Curious, isn't it, the way birds bob their heads while they walk but never while they fly? (Abbas finds it curious, though some might say curiosity is exactly his problem.) He wonders if it's something to do with a connective mechanism between the leg and the neck. And, he wonders, if one were to construct a mechanical pigeon, how might the head be engineered to jerk with every step?

Then he recalls something a friend once told him.

Ask too many questions and next thing you know, you're the one being questioned.

Abbas is trading out one gouge for another when a man appears at the threshold, holding a bayonet that surpasses him in height. By the tiger-striped sleeves, Abbas knows him to be one of Tipu Sultan's royal guards.

"Are you Abbas, son of Yusuf Muhammad?" the guard says. "Who's asking?" says Abbas, not as coolly as he'd like.

The guard takes a breath. "Tipu Sultan Fath Ali Khan, the Tiger of Mysore, the Padshah of Patan, Breaker of Colonel Baillie, and God-Given Overseer of the State—" Across the lane, a lathe shrieks to a stop. People lift their heads from their work. "—has summoned Abbas, son of Yusuf Muhammad, to the Summer Palace."

"Outside the city walls?" asks Abbas, who has never in his life been outside the city walls.

"Is there another Summer Palace?" says the guard. "Get up!" Abbas stands, his legs tingling with pins and needles. He won-

ders if he will faint.

"Wait," says Yusuf Muhammad, following Abbas and the guard into the lane. "He's only seventeen. Let me answer for his crimes."

"What crimes?" says Junaid. "What is all this about?"

"Did I say crimes? I meant misdeeds." Yusuf Muhammad drops his voice low. "Is this about the eunuch?"

"Eunuch?" says the guard, affronted.

"I can speak for myself," Abbas says quickly. He follows the guard's instruction to walk three paces ahead but does not grant his family a backward glance, knowing it is too late to explain himself or ask their forgiveness.

It is said that in Srirangapatna, the spies outnumber the people. There are the spymasters and couriers of Tipu Sultan, ferrying messages to and from the capital city, and then there are the spies of Tipu's enemies—the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nairs of Malabar, the Marathas, the English, the Mangalorean Catholics. (Do not even get Tipu started on those Catholics; mention the Catholics in his presence and he will have a gold-plated fit.) Tipu has spies in the courts of his friends and enemies, too, constantly sending him intelligence, which, problematically, only excites the thirst for more intelligence.

But these are problematic times.

Tipu's kingdom barely survived the most recent war with the English, and talk of still another is always on the horizon. The people never know who is coming from where to take what from whom. All they can do is submit to power each time it changes hands, each time the powerful decide to redecorate. This one wants a new calendar. That one wants his face struck on a coin. With every alteration, large and small, the ground ...

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Loot by Tania James. Copyright © 2023 by Tania James. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. What are the different factors that go into social class/caste in Mysore at the time we meet the characters? How are these boundaries enforced (and broken) within the different communities of Indians and Europeans?
  2. Discuss how Abbas's creativity is nurtured and stifled by different people throughout his life. As a child, it's said that "his mind glitters with ideas, yet he has no idea of how much luck he will need" (86)—what kind of "luck" does he receive, and what kind does he miss out on?
  3. Discuss the relationship between Du Leze and Abbas. What is the balance between transactional and genuine connection? How does their teacher-student bond transcend the cultural stigmas of the time?
  4. Compare the scenes of Tipu's battle (the sections "The Final Months of Tipu Sultan," p. 99, and "The Siege," p. 111). What is different about the point of view, the narration, and even the events of these sections? Who comes out victorious in the conflicts of humans vs. nature, as well as Europeans vs. Indians?
  5. What did you make of the circumstances of Tipu's death? Was it fitting for his stature as a politician and soldier?
  6. Tigers are seen in many forms throughout the novel—the carving of the Musical Tiger, the moniker of "Tipu the Tiger," and the real tigers that are released during the siege (one of which is shot). How does this animal's fate—"Bahadur Khan limps into a freedom he knew twenty years before, when he was first taken from the forest. His fur mangy, ribs like claws. He gazes up at the unbarred sky, having barely the energy to draw a breath before he is shot" (120)—embody all these tigers' situations and fates? How do the European conquerors act on their fear of the "other" in the lands they colonize?
  7. Thomas Beddicker's journals offer an inside look at the conditions of a sea voyage during this time (and a relatively pampered one, compared to other groups of people making similar trips). Which seemed worse—the way people were treated during and after the siege, or how the soldiers and other passengers on the ship fared on their way home?
  8. Did Abbas make the right choice in staying behind in India after the siege? How might things have been different for him and Du Leze if they had left together? Consider what he says as a boy: "And so he keeps perfecting the enemy he knows and putting off the one he doesn't" (48).
  9. Although they are left to fend for themselves after Du Leze dies, what social constraints limit the activities and even desires of Jehanne and her aunt? In taking over Lucien's shop with Abbas by the end of the novel, does Jehanne truly find independence?
  10. Where does Abbas meet more insult and derision because of his ethnicity—at home or in Europe? What does this suggest about the prevalence of the colonial mindset during this time?
  11. Discuss the relationship and tensions between Abbas and Rum. Do they feel more alike, or more different, due to their backgrounds, their affiliations with Tipu, and the ways they moved forward in life beyond India? How is even their discussion of their experiences among themselves restricted?
  12. Rum thinks about his relationship with Lady Selwyn: "What could be more right and fortunate than two people finding one another in the twilight of their lives, their bodies too old to be anything but honest?" (196–97). Did you think their love was honest? What was each of them getting out of the situation that was real and what was manipulative?
  13. Is Lady Selwyn's obsession with Tipu and his relics authentic or fetishized? Consider her imaginings when she dons Tipu's robe: "Here is the person she always wanted, as a girl, to be. Unbound and destined for elsewhere. Feet set apart, fist propped on her hip. Lady Magellan. Flat-chested adventuress ... a citizen of the world" (244).
  14. Why do you think the book is named after the card game that Jehanne and Lady Selwyn play? What forms of "loot" are there in the novel, who owns them, and what is their relative worth?
  15. What changes in Abbas during his time at Cloverpoint that he chooses to go after Jehanne over the Musical Tiger during the fire? Would she have done the same for him?
  16. The novel takes place over about sixty years—from 1794 to 1859. How did cultural and individual attitudes shift during this time, if at all? What would have been different for Abbas and Jehanne, both marginalized, if they had met five, ten, or more years in the future?
  17. Consider your own family's heritage. What roles might previous generations have played in the machinations of colonialism? Where do similar attitudes, policies, and communities still exist today?
  18. What makes the Musical Tiger so special to Tipu, Du Leze, Abbas, Jehanne, and Lady Selwyn? Does this example of politicized art bring people together or separate them—or both?
Suggested Reading
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The East Indian by Brinda Charry
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Amid the turbulence of war and colonial rule, a young Muslim woodcarver's life changes trajectories as he leaves India on an epic journey.

Print Article Publisher's View   

One of the most famous and intriguing objects in the collection of London's Victoria and Albert Museum is Tipu's (or Tipoo's) Tiger, an almost life-sized carved wooden sculpture of a tiger attacking a British soldier lying beneath him. Its original owner, Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in South India, was killed by the British in 1799. The victors plundered the Sultan's palace treasures, and the tiger was shipped to London.

In Loot, her imaginative, beautifully crafted novel, Tania James uses the real-life Tipu's Tiger (see Beyond the Book) as a platform from which to launch the reader into a gripping fictional adventure that will ultimately span two continents and fifty years. Although no information exists about the real makers of Tipu's Tiger, the style and mechanics of the piece suggest a collaboration between local Mysorean and French craftsmen. From this factual foundation, James's fictional story takes flight as the reader meets 17-year-old Abbas, a gifted woodcarver, who finds himself summoned by the sultan to work with a brilliant but troubled French watchmaker and inventor, Lucien Du Leze, in creating a spectacular automaton. The tiger is to be carved from wood and will emit growls from the bellows placed within his hollows. By the time the tiger is completed, Abbas will have become attuned to his life's purpose as a craftsman and an artist.

James's descriptive skills are impressive, and the sights and sounds of the Indian city, as well as the character of its people, are fully imagined. But life is uncertain in Mysore. On the heels of previous military confrontations with the British, the capital city of Seringapatam is filled with tumult and spies: "The people never know who is coming from where to take what from whom. All they can do is submit to power each time it changes hands, each time the powerful decide to redecorate."

A final rampage of the city by the British in their determined bid to expand colonial power reorients Abbas's world once again, and his path turns away from Mysore. His journey, which begins at sea and eventually leads to France and England, sets in motion a Dickensian narrative in which he encounters a procession of minor characters, each of whom springs to life and enriches the plot as Abbas continues his peregrinations.

Most of these characters struggle to achieve autonomy even as they are hobbled by the limitations imposed by the societies in which they live. Many of them face constricting expectations due to their ethnicity, class, gender, or sexual identity. The way that most societies view nonconformists can be summarized by the warning that Abbas receives when he signs on as a carpenter for a British East India Company ship: "There are only two things on board a ship: duty and mutiny. All that you are ordered to do is duty. All that you refuse to do is mutiny."

As in any exceptional novel, resonances and subthemes run like an underground river throughout the book—most obvious in this case is the impact of the British in India and the never-overstated reminder of how deeply a country's course of history can be altered by a foreign civilization imposing its own modes. The British swept through the region with a great sense of their own destiny, and in doing so, deprived local cultures of their own.

Despite their limitations, the characters in Loot persist in striving for self-determination and stand firmly against the temptations to live smaller lives. And the artists among them recognize that only by creating objects and art that will outlast their own time can they "have that small power over the grave."

Reviewed by Danielle McClellan

Loot is lovingly drawn and compulsively readable, with all the pleasures and detail of stellar historical fiction.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Lively and symbolically rich ... A smart, sharp tale, as well crafted as the object at its center ... [James's] prose is fleet and rich in ironic humor ... Loot, as the title hints, is an engaging reminder that today's museum pieces are often functions of forgotten exploitation and theft.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Spectacular ... There's an unceasing exuberance to the prose, and James's descriptions are endlessly witty ... Rarely is a novel so dense with painful themes also such fun. At once swashbuckling and searing, this is a marvelous achievement.

Author Blurb Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies
I read Loot in a single sitting; it is a wild, dazzling eighteenth-century romp across continents with profound things to say about invention and self-reinvention, class and fate, and the deeply human hunger to create family as both bulwark against loneliness and constant source of light and warmth.

Author Blurb Megha Majumdar, author of A Burning
Loot is a feast—a hugely fun novel with a delicious plot that offers delights and profundities in equal measure. Each chapter of this sprint across the world serves stunning truths about circumstance and ambition, love and sacrifice, and the fickleness of victory. I devoured this book, and remain in awe of what Tania James has created.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by prem singh
Loot A Novel
In a captivating weave of history, 'Loot' by Tania James presents an impressively heartwarming tale woven with the unique record of a developing skilled worker's journey to adulthood, central to an eighteenth-century legend. With the grandeur of a daring heist insight, it explores the crafty lands and bodies of ages past, following the deep red carving of government legacy into fifty years of aimless material.

At the crossroads of fate, Abbas, who is originally seventeen, becomes concerned with his ability to carve wood. It is here that one can expect the start of an incredible Tiger Machine, which will remain as a startling acknowledgment of the homecoming of Tipu's children from the clutches of English servitude. The tangled imagery that Abbas attributes to his hands, the ominous wooden animal that he restores, is a moralizing account of the wild growth of nations and lines ravaged by the unforgiving tide of war in India and the kingdoms of Europe. known as the story.

In a symphony of craftsmanship, Abbas ends up working with the bottomless French horologist, Lucien du Layz, as he refines his abilities, swallowing the musicality of the French language, the ethereal in-between of everything, giving Jehan a lucky Companion, a young lady meets a French schooner. Yet, just as Abbas appears on European shores, the tide of fortune has unexpectedly turned – the illustrious home of Tipu has been stolen by the marauding powers of the English, and the shadowy tiger robot has vanished into the shadows of time.

A fearless fire burns inside Abbas, an affirmation that leads him on a mission of recovery and recovery. To prove his mettle, he must traverse the lush landscape of the English countryside, where the royal jewels of invention are housed inside an endowment. This jackpot of seriously attainable abundance includes a picture of a mechanical tiger and Abbas' determination to exemplify the sinister history that revolves around it.

"Loot" is a show of resolute human spirit, a fitting visual that believably weaves together tales of reverence, war, displacement and longing, using it to illuminate a world edited by Tania James' great ability to narrate. is done for Opens Pages. James finds the epitome of time, craftsmanship and destiny in this masterpiece, offering readers a captivating journey through the halls of history and the workplaces of hearts....

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Kolin
Loot: A Novel of Art, Adventure, and Colonialism
Loot is a captivating and ambitious novel that explores the impact of imperialism on culture, identity, and love.
Tania James skillfully blends historical facts with imaginative fiction, creating a vivid and rich world full of memorable characters and scenes.
The novel is not only a thrilling story of a hero’s quest, but also a thoughtful reflection on the meaning of art, beauty, and belonging in a changing world.
I enjoyed reading Loot because it was well-written, engaging, and original. I learned a lot about the history and culture of India and France in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I was fascinated by the mechanical tiger and its symbolism.
The novel has some flaws, such as uneven pacing, too many subplots, and some anachronisms. However, these did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Pegeen Brosnan
Takes on too much
The long scope of time and the wide sweep of place in this novel seemed to result in a skim over the surface of many of the themes/ ideas it attempts to take on. ( and I had hoped to be more delved into in the story. ) I wonder if a narrative nonfiction book about the Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, his resistance to the British, and his commission of the automaton would have served as a better vehicle for investigating the impact of colonization and empire.

Print Article Publisher's View  

The Automaton: Tipu's Tiger

Tipu's Tiger figureCentral to the plot of Loot is the magnificent Tipu's Tiger, the wooden automaton that Abbas, a young Muslim woodcarver, creates in the 1790s in collaboration with the French inventor and clock maker Lucien Du Leze at the request of their ruler, Tipu Sultan.

According to the Mechanical Art and Design Museum (MAD), the word automata (the plural of automaton) is taken from the Greek word αὐτόματα, or "acting of one's own will." An automaton is a moving, mechanical device, usually constructed to look like a human or animal figure, which uses a variety of mechanical systems to give the illusion of autonomous movement. Automata made before the 16th century have not survived, but we know from written designs that early versions existed quite far back in antiquity. Examples have been traced back to the Greeks, the Chinese and the royal courts of the Islamic world.

Although Loot is a work of fiction, and the craftsmen Abbas and Lucien Du Leze are characters sprung from the imagination of author Tania James, Tipu's Tiger exists, as did the ruler it was named for, Tipu Sultan Fateh Ali Khan (also known as the Tiger of Mysore).

Tipu's Tiger is a carved lifelike figure of a tiger fiercely pinning a British soldier. Its body is a hollowed-out space in which bellows and a pipe organ have been inserted so that when the organ is played, the tiger gives out ferocious growls and the man screams and waves an arm. It must have created quite a stir when it was first introduced to the sultan's palace.

In the novel, after the British have killed the sultan and looted his palace, the automaton is given to one of the British officers and sent to his estate in England, but the real tiger was sent directly to the London headquarters of the British East India company and displayed in the company's India Museum. After that museum closed, it was transferred in the 1880s to the South Kensington Museum, now called the Victoria and Albert Museum. There, other than a brief period during the Second World War, it has been on display to the public ever since.

In her book Tipu's Tigers (2009) Susan Stronge quotes an employee of the East India Company indignantly describing the automaton as follows:

This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European…The whole of this design was executed by Order of Tippoo Sultaun. It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London.

The employee does not seem to recognize the irony of his words, as Tipu's unfortunate end demonstrates that he was not so very wrong to distrust the British. Nevertheless, his tiger was considered to be a terrible afront to the British. So much so, that, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, they arranged to have the last word on the matter:

After the British victory, a medal was struck in England to be given to every East India Company soldier who had taken part in the Siege of Seringapatam. On one side, a snarling, powerfully built lion is shown forcing a violently resisting tiger to the ground. Above them, a banner bearing the Union flag proclaims in Arabic Assadullah al-Ghaleb, "the conquering lion of God," borrowing the idea of Tippoo's tiger but leaving no doubt that here, the British lion defeats the "Tiger of Mysore."

Tipu's Tiger figure showing organ keyboard, courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

Filed under Music and the Arts

By Danielle McClellan

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