Cawnpore is the second book in Tom Williams series about John Williamson but I read it first. The good news is that it can easily be read as a standalone story although I think having read the first book probably adds something to understanding Williamson as a character.
John Williamson is employed as a Deputy Collector British India in the mid-19th century. A secretly gay man in Victorian society automatically puts Williamson in an uncomfortable position and this is compounded by his willingness to engage with the local Indian community in a way that was becoming increasingly rare at this point in Anglo-Indian history.
The story of Indian Mutiny of 1857 is very well known to me, so I was always going to be picky about the details, and there was nothing to annoy me about the author’s interpretation of events in this book. He looks at the rebellion from all sides and does a good job of trying to keep within the minds of his characters, without stepping out to impose a modern morality for the sake of political correctness. At the same time, Williamson’s relationships with Indian people, and particularly his love affair with one , enables the author to introduce a slightly different perspective to the traditional British view of the time. It is a clever device and in no way unbelievable; it was only as the nineteenth century advanced that the rigid racial distinctions became common in British India. Williamson feels like something of a throwback to some of the Nabobs of the eighteenth century who integrated far more with local people and often adopted Indian customs and dress.
That digression aside, Tom Williams is a good writer who knows his history and tells an excellent story. All the colourful descriptions and skilful characterisation of his other books are present. The run-up to the massacre was a masterpiece of slow building tension, probably made worse for those of us who knew what was coming.
This is a fantastic book, it was the first one of the author’s that I read, and it’s still the best for me. I knew the history very well but I loved this interpretation of it. The mutiny is a hugely complex topic and this book manages not to over-simplify while still being eminently readable.
Tom Williams also runs an excellent blog, which you can find here, I strongly suggest you take a look, it’s full of gems.