As “Loot” opens, Abbas, a gifted young wood-carver, is pulled out of obscurity to help craft an automaton for his state’s visionary, autocractic ruler, Tipu Sultan.
This is a stroke of luck. Obviously it’s a chance for Abbas to hone his skills and build knowledge in partnership with a French clockmaker, Lucien Du Leze. But Abbas has also been linked, tangentially, to some spycraft against the Sultan. Unbeknownst to him, it’s only Du Leze’s proclamation that the young carver is “a born master” that saves Abbas’ skin.
Abbas and Du Leze begin work on Tipu Sultan’s vision–an automaton of a tiger mauling a British soldier–and author Tania James uses their partnership to craft two beautiful characters. Abbas is proud, artistic, a little vain in his self-regard but open to a wider world. Du Leze is a warm teacher, even as he suffers in his exile from now-revolutionary France, along with his alcoholism and his potentially fatal sexuality.
Set largely in the 18th century kingdom/city of Mysore, “Loot” is most spellbinding in its early sections. It does an excellent job of shaping this unfamiliar (to me) world, establishing a lovely master/apprentice relationship between the two builders. It also finds a fascinating character in Tipu Sultan: intelligent, ruthless, proud, a wannabe enlightened despot who finds that his European partners are more inclined to send him curiosities than the factories and metalworks he craves.
Unfortunately, the British aren’t content to have Tipu control his region’s trade, and so they harry him until he falls, sending our craftspeople out into the world. At this point, “Loot” becomes a fantastical travelogue, an “Around the World in 80 Days” taking us to the open ocean and French shops and the gentry world of the English estates.
While these sections are still engaging, the contrivances build as the characters scatter and reconnect. By the book’s final section, it becomes hard to suspend disbelief about our protagonists and their unlikely receptions, even if you’ve grown to love them enough that you really want to.
Anchored in a beautiful beginning, “Loot” ends up feeling unmoored as it drifts through happening after happening. But James’ easy style and abiding sympathy for her characters keep the book a rewarding read.
“Du Leze turns the watch around and flips open another door, exposing a series of delicate golden gears turning against one another. They churn of their own accord, teeth fitting perfectly into gaps. How strange that this is the side being concealed, when the back is far more wondrous than the front.”