A Singular Hostage

Written by Thalassa Ali
Review by India Edghill

In 1838, Mariana Givens travels to India to husband-hunt. She, however, is not a typical Victorian maiden; she prefers bazaars to balls and learning Indian languages to flirting with British officers. When Governor-General Lord Auckland journeys across India to the Punjab, Mariana’s skill with languages results in her being taken along as a translator for Lord Auckland’s sisters. Lord Auckland is to meet with Maharajah Ranjit Singh to negotiate support for England’s planned excursion into Afghanistan to set a puppet king on the Afghan throne. But politics mean little to Mariana, who has problems of her own: the officer she favors can’t marry her, the officer who favors her, she won’t marry, and capricious fate saddles her with the care of the singular hostage of the title: Saboor, grandson of a Muslim mystic. To protect him, Mariana must safely navigate the maze of Punjabi and English politics – and enter into a marriage that changes her life forever.

Adequate and enjoyable–but predictable. The ending is wide-open, as apparently a sequel is planned, so the novel feels unfinished. And in a P.C. attempt to make Mariana freethinking and open-minded, all the historical characters become caricatures, and boring ones at that. One never would guess, in reading this novel, that Mariana is surrounded by one of the biggest collections of eccentrics, cranks, egoists, and outright loons ever to assemble in India’s sunny clime, nor that this motley crew is about to embark upon one of the most appallingly mismanaged military debacles of all time. (For a slightly less priggish view of the Punjab/Afghan excursion and the colorful – nay, downright lurid – characters involved, I suggest reading Flashman and Flashman and the Mountain of Light, by George Macdonald Fraser.)