Review: The White Rajah by Tom Williams

Invalided out of the East India Company’s army, James Brooke looks for adventure in the South China Seas. When the Sultan of Borneo asks him to help suppress a rebellion, Brooke joins the war to support the Sultan and improve his chances of trading successfully in the area. Instead, he finds himself rewarded with his own country, Sarawak.

Determined to be an enlightened ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his people, James settles with his lover, John Williamson, in their new Eden. But piracy, racial conflict, and court plotting conspire to destroy all he has achieved. Driven from his home and a fugitive in the land he ruled, James is forced to take extreme measures to drive out his enemies.

The White Rajah is the story of a man, fighting for his life, who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery. Told through the eyes of the man who loves him and shares his dream, this is a tale of love and loss from a 19th century world that still speaks to us today.

Review by Erastes

It’s unfortunate that this book has the same title as that of one on the same subject by a very well known author, Nicholas Monsarrat–Brooke was indeed known as the first “white rajah” though, but perhaps a different title might have been prudent.

The book is fictionally written by John Williamson, who was in fact a real person but who has been fictionalised for this book. The writing is done deliberately in a way to convince us that it’s a memoire written at and of the time, which manages to do that quite well, and that’s partly to blame for failing to win me over, too.

My first impression of the first twenty or so pages though were more that it was recounting what happened, rather than allowing us to know the characters. I would have like to have known about the narrator a little more, because in order to care what happens to a character you have to care about them. He’s rather surprisingly erudite for a sailor before the mast, and he has such knowledge of places and people as to come across as an omniecent narrator. I don’t mind passages such as this:

“I tell you again, sir,” he was saying, “we can make no decent profit from such limited commissions as these. We must seek the sort of work we might find from Jardine Matheson who—”

Mr Brooke had been lounging back in his chair affecting a casual air that failed entirely to mask his irritation. At the name of Jardine Matheson, one of the largest and most respected firms amongst the Singapore merchants

But I’d prefer some connection with his knowledge, show us why he knows this about Matheson, rather than simply telling us.This telling rather than showing continues much of the way through the book, for example where we are told that Brooke is charismatic–but we’ve not actually had any personal insight into him through John’s eyes. No conversations, no action–so the fact he’s charismatic rather leaves me thinking. “Oh yeah? Says you.” He also says that seeing Brooke again after a gap of five years rekindled feelings that he thought he had forgotten. However, the author seems to have forgotten that he never mentioned any feelings in the first place, and these “feelings” aren’t mentioned again for a hundred pages.

The whole beginning section was rather pointless, I felt, particularly as it didn’t give us any depth into either character other than “Mr Brooke told me years later that…” and it could have been excised entirely without losing much of the narrative. The only thing is served was to have John meet Brooke, and that could easily have been achieved by a sentence later on when they meet again. On page 23 there is this frankly kick-ass sentence:

In June of 1839, almost five years after I first arrived at Singapore in the Findlay, James Brooke came back into my life.

This would have been a great first line – and it would have been a marvellous place to start the story, because this is where the story actually begins.

Sadly the book continues with swathes of telling not showing. Scenes that could have been interesting were cut short with a modicum of conversation and finished off by telling us what happened after the brief exchange. It’s almost like the author is scared of conversations. I know that sometimes an author will think that they want to cut forward to more plot but the readers can get more from the characters with a conversation than they can from pages of exposition.

Part of the omniescent feel is probably based on the fact that it’s told in a memoire style. I do like memoires, but I think I’d have preferred this just to be a narration of events rather than an endless jumping back and forth. The narrator actually says:

I write now with an understanding I did not have then.

And that’s rather the problem, because we aren’t quite sure what we are reading, a historical record with all the facts in place, or the observations of a rather gauche ignorant sailor who seems to know everything. He tells us things that he couldn’t possibly have known at the time, such as Brooke’s motivations, things he’s gleaned from a more intimate knowledge of Brooke in the future of this narration, and this for me was quite off-putting.

I know next to nothing about ships and nautical matters, but I have to say that the seafaring experience of John seems rather overly idyllic. Other than one storm in the unnecessary first section he doesn’t have any problems with weather or with unruly bosses, and indeed seems to spend much of his time loafing around, hanging around the deck, or drinking and having shore leave – despite the ship being magically ship-shape, bristol fashion and gleaming. In fact, and it pains me to say it, because I haven’t encountered one of these for a long time, John is a bit of a Mary Sue, or more correctly a Gary Stu, because everything he does, he does effortlessly: learns Malay, negotiates treaties and the Rajah-ship (despite being unable to read or write) has an uncanny insight into the country and its customs, despite not having been there before, is a better sailor than anyone else, meets up with people who can give him exactly the information he needs, etc etc.

Here is a good example of many of the problems I found here:

I met with fewer Malays in the course of my business in the markets, for they generally felt themselves superior to such commercial activity. Those I did have dealings with were generally more forthcoming about the realities of the political situation. They soon became used to my presence, and the various small gifts I would take whenever I visited them helped form friendships with them.

Firstly, how does he know that they felt superior? Who was he meeting, how did they get used to his presence? Why did he go and meet them, if all he was doing was shopping in the market, how did he get invited to meet them? Who were they? All these questions and more formed in my head, because the author is simply using John as an all-too-convenient narration tool; someone who needs to be everywhere and to know everything which is unbelievable and doesn’t make us care about him as a person. In fact he was more like the kind of camera you get in a video game which is constantly standing behind your main character, than a character in his own right. Eventually he just becomes an extension of Brooke’s orbit and isn’t bothering to do any common sailoring, but just standing beside Brooke the whole time so he can tell us in excruitiang detail what’s going on. I can’t help but think this would have been a better book from Brooke’s POV, as John even goes so far as to interject Brooke’s feelings from time to time which he could not possibly have known.

Even the fighting scenes are done in this dry narration style, instead of spicing up the narrative.

When we finally do get the homosexual relationship, we are told that Brooke kisses John – and it’s described as the “most natural thing in the world” which made me laugh out loud because there had been absolutely no relationship building or even any sign of physical attraction for the 100 pages that came before it. John does realise that he loves Brooke a few pages earlier, but you get no sense that he feels it in a homosexual manner, as there was no shock of how unnatural that would be to him. He does add a bit about sin after the kiss, but it truly feels pasted on.

However, one does get used to this dry narration and as a fictional account of historical matters it’s not that bad, it’s just not terribly interesting, and I have to say that I had to force myself to read it, because it certainly didn’t grab me by the throat, which is a shame, because the experiences related had the opportunity to be exciting, rather than “we did this, then we did this” and the over descriptive passages where we are shown all the research the author did smack very much of Dan Brownism.

There were a few anachronisms here and there–hansom cabs making too earlyan  appearance being one of the in your face ones, but nothing too egregious.

If you like a dry historical account, then you’ll enjoy this, and Brooke was certainly a fascinating man, so I was pleased to know so much about a man I had not heard of before, but it was too dry and factual for me, and I would have preferred a lot more action and a little more conversation.

Author’s website

JMS Books

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