In an alternate world where a familiar nineteenth-century England (Anglica) builds a sea-spanning Bridge that makes crossing the kraken-filled waters to a recognizable India (Bharata) safer and more expedient, young Astoria (called Tori) is determined to find the Golden Lotus, a mythical flower in Nanpura, a province of Bharata. She is club-footed and scholarly, having spent her time with her grandfather, a student of the natural world. Nanpura is the home of Mahindra, a Bharatan sorcerer who is also determined to find the Golden Lotus – for his own purposes. He harbors hatred for the Anglicans, who have conquered his homeland and imposed their own culture over his. He orchestrates Tori’s arrival and subsequent search by arranging for her father to be posted in Nanpura, and to take his family with him. Unknown to Tori and Mahindra, the Anglican government also plans to use Tori to find the mythical flower – in order to further subjugate the Bharatans. And the plot thickens.
Tori, young Captain Muir-Smith, the younger prince of Nanpura, Mahindra, an old gardener who knew Tori’s grandfather, and an officer with the intelligence services, all play a role in the story and narrate the plot at different times. Bharata is almost a secondary character, with lavish descriptions of the jungle, of its people, its spirits, and its society.
At times the characters felt a little flat slash uneven – for example, for the entire first half of the novel, Captain Muir-Smith is a one-dimensional Hero. In the latter half, he gains a bit of depth and character. Tori and Mahindra experience dramatic changes in outlook as they learn from each other. As Tori moves in and begins to understand Nanpura, she discovers that the Anglican perspective is and has been harmful to Bharatans, and that she has behaved in the same way. She is also interesting for her unconventional outlook and her bravery.
Tori is really a vehicle for the real story – about two lands and two cultures that clash in the name of “Progress,” when Bharata is invated by Anglicans. This tale of colonialism at its most destructive is also a tale of conflict between magic and science. In Anglica, science rules, while Bharatan society revolves around magic and spirituality. It is also a tale of independence, as Bharatans struggle to remove the Anglicans from their homes, and as Tori searches for the Golden Lotus and for independence from the restrictive Anglican society that will neither let her be a scholar, nor fully accept her, since her foot is deformed.
The world-building was really a highlight in this novel. The magical India introduced here provides a mystical, lush, and dangerous background for the interpersonal and intersocietal conflict that drives the plot. Magical practices conform to implied rules, making it believable.
At times the plot was thin, and seemed disconnected. So many threads and narrators, loosely woven together, made it difficult to follow the pattern. By the end of the novel, I was unsure why some elements had been introduced, and how others fit into the larger plot. At the end, there is sort of a rash of happenings that drag the tone of the novel into the “dark” category, which was definitely a surprise, given the way it started. Yet, the resolution of Tori’s story suits her character and development, and I found that resolution satisfying. Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and I will check out other works by this author. Recommended for fans of alternate Victorian history and magical fantasy.