BookBrowse Reviews The Strangler Vine by Miranda J. Carter

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The Strangler Vine

by Miranda J. Carter

The Strangler Vine by Miranda J. Carter X
The Strangler Vine by Miranda J. Carter
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 384 pages

    Feb 2016, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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About this Book



Nineteenth-century India comes to life in technicolor as two employees from the British East India Company set out to solve a disappearance.

The Strangler Vine is a historical thriller full of adventure and intrigue, set in colonial India in the nineteenth century. William Avery, the youngest son of a Devon gentleman, is dispatched to Calcutta to serve in the East India Company. Will has been seduced by the romantic and adventurous vision of India he grew up reading about, in the epic poems of Xavier Mountstuart, an English writer living in India, who has recently set everyone talking with a scandalous story portraying Calcutta high society as little more than "a hotbed of untrammeled lust and greed." After a mere nine months in India, however, the heat, the routine, the stiffness of Calcutta society and the death of his closest friend, have all taken their toll on Will Avery. But when Mountstuart goes missing, Will is tasked with accompanying Jeremiah Blake, a some-time political agent for the Company, to find the missing writer, and his time in India becomes far more eventful. No longer the darling of the East India Company, Mountstuart is reputed to have disappeared while researching his next work. The Company would like him found before he can publish another story that damages their reputation in India and at home.

M.J. Carter immediately immerses her readers in the vibrant, hot, fragrant, (and sometimes not-so-fragrant world) of nineteenth-century India. As Will and Blake travel along the Grand Trunk Road as far as Benares, before turning west toward Jubbulpore, rich sensory descriptions bring the country and its people to life. The story benefits from the juxtaposition of two very different characters. Avery is naïve, recently arrived from England, very disposed towards the Company's point of view and suspicious of Indians and their culture. Blake, by contrast, is a much older man and from a generation of British people in India considerably more interested in engaging with and understanding the people, their religions and traditions.

One of the duo's destinations is the Thuggee Bureau in Jubbulpore, run by Major William Sleeman, a real-life historical figure. Sleeman's work involved the active suppression of the Thugs, violent gangs of natives who made travel through India notoriously dangerous. The Thugs were nomads who wandered the country during the dry season preying on groups of travelers. They were known to masquerade as pilgrims or merchants who would gain the trust of travelers to the point that they accepted as part of the group. Then, at an appointed time, each Thug would sneak up behind one of the travelers and strangle them simultaneously. Avery is particularly horrified to learn that the Thugs justify their murders by claiming they are carried out as acts of devotion to the Hindu goddess Kali (see 'Beyond the Book'). They claim she has ordered them to kill, that their victims are offerings to her and that she delights in their blood.

Sleeman's effort to destroy the Thuggee becomes of great importance to the plot. Details of the Bureau's methods, including the suspected use of torture emerge, as Avery and Blake hunt down the missing writer. From a hanging in Jubbulpore to a tiger hunt in Doora and on to a mountain prison on the road to Mirzapore, The Strangler Vine is a riot of color and vibrancy.

Carter is a historian and this is her first fictional outing, a highly detailed, vivid and authentic piece of historical writing. For all that it offers the reader however, the novel suffers from a slightly predictable plot and minimal character development. It comes as no surprise that the two men's quest is not as straightforward as Avery believes it to be, or that his views on India and its people undergo a change due to his experience. There is a plot twist, but once the drama of the adventure is over, the book closes at a slow pace as various loose ends are tied up. That said, Avery and Blake retain an enjoyable partnership and return in a sequel, The Infidel Stain.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2015, and has been updated for the March 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Goddess Kali


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