Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
“Lies That Blind” by E.S. Alexander is a drama-filled work of historical fiction that follows Jim (James) Lloyd, a young hopeful employee of the East India Trading Company, who becomes the voyage mate of the legendary Captain Francis Light. Through Jim, we see Francis Light and the (often unscrupulous) dealings of the British and the Dutch in Malaysia—the center of trade between India and China that had been ruled by sultans with severe legalistic leanings.
We often hear about the severe corporal and capital punishments instituted by the regime at the time including being drawn and quartered or trampled by elephants, amputations, and impaling. At the same time, while we are told these things, the Europeans are not shown in an idealized light, but rather in a very gray one. We are constantly prompted to consider Francis Light as a hero or a villain.
Something else that's constantly in the background of this story is Britain's loss to the American colonies in the American Revolution and constant mention of a very familiar name: Lord Charles Cornwallis, who (at the time the book takes place) is known as the man who lost the American colonies despite his other successes including as Governor-General of India. This is, for all intents and purposes, a period piece.
Fort Cornwallis, which bears the Governor-General's name, serves as a major location in the book, centered on “George Town” (named after King George), the British capital in Penang, Malaysia. You get an idea of how exploitative the British, but more notably the Dutch, are to the natives. They often come in and colonize a place, taking slaves and even burning old crops to force them to grow new ones in order to survive. The Europeans seem to want to command and control by any means necessary.
During the course of this book, the main protagonist, Jim, goes on an adventurous quest of self-discovery, developing relationships with Martinha and William, the latter of whom he forms a father-son-like bond with.
We feel like we've read this book six times, but in truth we actually just kept starting and stopping. We kept stopping around 150 pages in, at which point we'd already forgotten what happened and were lost. We've managed to finish it once each. This book seems to promise some swashbuckling pirate adventure filled with thrilling 18th-century duels and battles—both of the ground and naval varieties—but it's really nothing like that. It is actually incredibly, heavily political. And, by political we don't mean political ranting (at least) or trying to compare old white dictators to the man whose name begins with “T” and end in “Rump” (at least), but it's more like the Star Wars prequels: the Trade Federation has established its blockade on Naboo and the negotiations were short.
Every time we tried to read this book, we had this hope that something cool, exciting, or interesting was going to happen. The ship they were sailing on was going to sink. Pirates were going to board. The French or the Dutch would cannonade them. One of the MCs was going to be captured by the sultan, held for ransom, and Jim and a ragtag group of miscreants was going to have to break them out. Well, in all fairness, one somewhat beloved character does face the possibility of harsh punishment, but that is quickly gleamed over. This book simply isn't written like that. Yes, there are some fights and exciting things near the end of this, but the author made us wait so incredibly long to get to those parts (including the aforementioned beloved character being in peril) that we'd lost interest by that point. Most of this book is dialogue and drama. We've just read a book by David Mammina titled “Of Freedom, Fear and Fantasy” that handles seafaring and slavery (and relationships with slaves) arguably better, or at least in a more exciting way. Maybe we're just suckers for melodrama, but this book just kept prompting the question: who or what are we supposed to be rooting for? The Europeans are exploitative, slave-owning jerks and the sultan and his regime are depraved authoritarians. Are we supposed to be cheering for Jim, our blank-slate of a main character? The hype for this book was heavily around Francis Light, his deceit is the inspiration of for the title, but Francis Light is not really the focus of the book. So, what do we have? We have “Great Gatsby” if it were focused on Nick and not Gatsby.
This is Jim's story, it just so happens to have Francis Light in it.
But, ok, Jim might be a little generic as far as protagonists go, but he is still a good man (at least). He still cares about and shows concern for people like William. He doesn't always approve of things like slavery and severe punishments. He's committed to his course, and he is dedicated to seeing it through.
We almost always see things from Jim's limited perspective, although his perspective weirdly veers into a semi-omniscient perspective. We'd joked that it almost sounds like he's a time traveler. He (and others in the book) don't talk like they're in the 18th century. They talk like they're from Palo Alta, California. But going back to the time-traveler thing, Jim legitimately wants to ask the question, “Are we there yet?” and states that it's the kind of question a child asks from the back seat on a long journey. He uses the word “coach” instead of car, but you get the point. It's almost like it's not 1780-something at all... But in fairness, the time and subject matter are probably difficult enough for most modern audiences to grab onto without archaic forms of English being thrown in, complicating what is already very complicated.
This book covers the exact same time-period and is very similar (genre-wise) to “Wild Colts Make the Best Horses” by Mary Rae Mauch—arguably the best book we read this year or at least very close. That book was over 900 pages long! NINE-HUNDRED PAGES! And that book felt shorter than this 270-page novel. Imagine that. This book is denser than the center of a neutron star. Not only do you need to be aware of what was going on with the British Empire at the time, you also need to be aware of the Qing Dynasty in China, the Mughal Empire in South Asia (mostly India), the colonial Dutch, and the sultanate in Malaysia.
The Dutch are portrayed in such a despicable light in this. The Dutch come in after the British leave an area undefended, then burn down all the nutmeg trees to send a message to the British and the locals that they were now in control of the spice trade. While reading things like this, we just couldn't help but think of the quote by Nigel Powers in “Austin Powers: Gold Member”:
“There are only two things I can't stand in this world: People who are intolerant of other people's cultures, and the Dutch.”
That kind of humor usually gets us through plodding, meandering books like this.
We're probably losing our minds and exaggerating a bit, but that's what this book did to us: it made our heads spin. It was like being in a fight with Mike Tyson in his prime after just getting into boxing two months ago. It's a lot to take in all at once. It probably makes perfect sense to the author though. They're the Evander Holyfield in this situation. They've been there and done that. Unfortunately, as neophytes, it's overwhelming.
But here's the thing, this book is A LOT, but it's also A LOT TO LOVE. You might absolutely end up loving it. There is a sense of adventure and exploration. You are learning as you go along! And this book really picks up about 220 pages in. You finally get some of that high-stakes action that you were probably hoping for.
Very briefly, something that was very interesting was considering the amount of time it took correspondence (letters) to get from one place to another back then. In other words, you could be writing a letter telling your grandma that you got a new job, but it might not get to her for 5-12 months or even longer, if it even gets to her at all. Could you imagine that? In modern times, we have e-mail and smartphones. We complain when USPS or FedEx is a day late, and here these poor 18th century saps were spilling their hearts onto paper hoping that the ship carrying these parcels wouldn't get blown out of the water by a pirate ship or hit a reef.
Check this book out if you're into historical fiction related to colonial times.