Loot: A Novel

This inventive historical novel (304 pages) was published in June of 2023 by Knopf. The book takes you to 19th-century India. Melissa read Loot and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.


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A Novel

Tania James

Set in 18th-century India, this is gorgeous, sepia-toned historical adventure that will immerse you in the dangerous and enthralling world of our hero Abbas.

When we meet Abbas, it’s 1794 in Mysore in southern India. He was born into a family of wood carvers; his father and brothers make useful things like cabinets and beds. But Abbas is an artist cursed with curiosity. He carves fanciful toys — elephants, tigers, horses that move with the turn of a crank. Stick to the family business, his father says, because ‘toys only bring trouble.’

Those words are hanging in the air like a thought balloon when the Sultan’s guards arrive to escort Abbas from his family home to the Summer Palace. It seems that Abbas’ toys have caught the eye of the Sultan.

At the Palace, Abbas is apprenticed to a French clockmaker, Lucien Du Leze, and together they’re commanded by the Sultan to build Mysore’s first automaton. They will carve a ferocious wooden tiger attacking a British soldier — all the better for Tipu to show his strength and fortitude in the face of the encroaching British East India Company.

That tiger, essentially an enormous toy, opens up Abbas’s world to artistry, travels, romance, and — as his father predicted — some troubles.

This story has the big sweep of a 19th-century novel. As it moves from India to Rouen, France, and to England, each section takes on the shimmer of a slightly different genre. There are coming-of-age elements that morphs into a war story and then to an adventure tale. Part of it unfolds through the journal pages of a sailor aboard a East India Company ship.

And the best thing about this book? The tiger is real.

Stroll in to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see the almost life-sized carved wooden soldier. And the tiger on the verge of ripping out the man’s (imperialist) throat. There are mechanisms and a bellows inside to move the man’s hand move as he emits a wailing sound. The tiger grunts. A small pipe organ is hidden inside the tiger, and there’s a keyboard with ivory keys to play music during the attack.

Thrilling, swashbuckling, romantic, and completely immersive, this gorgeously written novel delivers a solid lesson about imperialism — without feeling like any kind of lesson at all.

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… This one wants a new calendar. That one wants his face struck on a coin. With every alteration, large and small, the ground unfirms itself beneath their feet, making it nearly impossible for anyone to leave a lasting mark. At the moment, Abbas has no interest in leaving a mark. All he wants is to stay out of trouble, though it is, perhaps, a little late for that. — Tania James

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