Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

I really have no idea why I haven’t read this book before now. The Far Pavilions has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager, but for some reason it just never occurred to me to look into what else M.M. Kaye wrote until recently, when I read two of her Death In… mystery novels. When I saw that Cirtnecce was hosting a readalong of Shadow of the Moon this summer, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try another of Kaye’s historical novels in the hope that I would love it as much as The Far Pavilions!

Shadow of the Moon was originally published in 1957 and revised in 1979. Like The Far Pavilions, it is set in India, but at a slightly earlier time – before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Our heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is born in Lucknow to an English mother and Spanish father. Orphaned by the age of six, Winter is sent to England to be raised by her great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware, but the country of her birth still holds a special place in her heart and she dreams of returning one day to the Gulab Mahal, the place she considers home.

Winter is eleven when she meets Conway Barton, who is visiting from India, and she is captivated by his good looks and his connection with the country she misses so much. Conway, with his eye on Winter’s fortune, suggests a betrothal, but it is not until six years later that Winter is old enough to go and join him in India for the wedding. Now Commissioner of Lunjore, Conway says that he is far too busy to escort his fiancée across the sea himself, so he sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, in his place. Unknown to Winter, however, her betrothed is no longer the man she thinks he is and has another reason for wanting to delay their meeting. Will the marriage take place or will Alex be able to change her mind during the long voyage to Lunjore?

There’s a romantic aspect to Shadow of the Moon, then, but the historical element is just as important. Cirtnecce has put together two excellent posts (here and here) describing the political landscape in India in 1857, how the country came to be ruled by the British East India Company and the factors leading to the rebellion. All of this is explored in a lot of depth throughout the novel, showing the same impressive level of research and the same understanding and sympathy for India and its people that I remember from The Far Pavilions.

The descriptions of India itself are wonderful and vivid. Whether she’s writing about the streets and bazaars of Lunjore or the relentless heat of summer and the relief of the monsoon, Kaye always chooses just the right words to bring the scene to life. The horrors and atrocities of the Mutiny are also described in vivid detail, although a relatively short portion of the novel is devoted to the actual rebellion and much more to the gradual building of tension, ending in the controversy over the new Enfield rifles which sparked the revolt (the British required the sepoys to use cartridges which were smeared with pork and beef fat, offensive to both Muslims and Hindus).

Lunjore, where much of the action is set, is a fictional district on the borders of Oudh (although it is portrayed so convincingly I had to check to see whether it was a real place or not) but the situation which unfolds there is similar to that being played out elsewhere in India. The British commanding officers are seemingly blind to what is going on around them, refusing to listen to stories of unrest amongst the Indian people and unwilling to doubt the loyalty of their armies. Alex Randall is one of the few exceptions – a man who thinks for himself and who tries to see things from the point of view of others. It’s so frustrating to watch his advice and warnings repeatedly falling on deaf ears as his superiors tell themselves he is worrying about nothing and stubbornly refuse to heed his words.

I found Alex an interesting, complex character, torn between his feelings for Winter and what he sees as his duties and responsibilities towards both the Company and the people of Lunjore. I was particularly intrigued by his relationship with Kishan Prasad – two men who are on ‘opposite sides’ but who each understand what the other is trying to do and under different circumstances might have been friends. With the bridging role he plays between the British and Indian perspectives, Alex often reminded me of Ashton Pelham-Martyn from The Far Pavilions. It took me a bit longer to warm to Winter – I was irritated by her infatuation with Conway and had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen!

Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it and now I can’t wait to read M.M. Kaye’s other historical novel, Trade Wind, and the rest of the Death In series.

This is book 11/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

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18 thoughts on “Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I am thrilled to know that you liked this as much as The Far Pavillions, a book I loved way back when I read it. I am going to add this to my list and I think it will make a great companion read to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy which I have waiting impatiently on my shelf for me to read. Perhaps I will have an India theme going for a while!

    • Helen says:

      The Far Pavilions is a better book, I think, but I did love this one too and definitely recommend adding it to your list! I hope you enjoy the Arundhati Roy book.

  2. Cleo @ Classical Carousel says:

    An excellent review, Helen! I’m glad to hear you felt the same way about Winter as I did. She seemed quite intelligent and insightful overall, so at times her silly decisions made me want to strangle her. I was quite surprised that Kaye would place Winter, a married woman, as a romantic interest for Randall ….. don’t you think that would have been rather shocking for the time it was published (1957)?

    In any case, overall I really enjoyed it and am anxious to read another M. M. Kaye book soon!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks. 🙂 Yes, Winter was a frustrating character…I liked her at times but, as you say, some of her decisions were unbelievably silly! I hadn’t thought about the romance being shocking, but I suppose it probably was, in the 1950s. I’m glad you enjoyed the book overall!

      • cirtnecce says:

        Hello Ladies…just a side note…Kaye was bit of rebel herself. She had her first daughter out of the wedlock in 1941 and married the father later, when circumstances allowed. As a young girl she refused the alliance her mother had sought for her and instead traveled to India all alone working as an artist, writer etc. Coming from such a background, I think getting Alex hitched to Winter was just an extension of Kaye thumbing her nose at the society….atleast thats my interpretation!

        • Helen says:

          That’s interesting. I don’t know much about Kaye’s life, so thanks for that information. It does sound as though she must have been an independent, unconventional person for her time.

          • cirtnecce says:

            You know thats what friends are for….to add on to the TBR. I read the Vol 1 and Vol 2, but yet to get to 3. So whenever you decide to venture that way, all you need to do is holler over for company!

  3. Yvonne says:

    A great review, Helen (I’m still working on mine). Totally agree with your thoughts on Winter. I loved the character of Alex Randall from the start and shared his frustration with his superior officers who refused to acknowledge that they may have a problem. I would have liked to know what became of Kishan Prasad or did I miss this? I thoroughly enjoyed this book for both the romance and the historical aspects (can’t believe it slipped past me until now) and I’m looking forward to reading The Far Pavilions and then Trade Wind.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I loved Alex too – it was so annoying to see the other officers ignoring his warnings time and time again! I’m not sure if we ever found out what happened to Kishan Prasad; I think his part in the story was over when he repaid his debt to Alex. As you enjoyed this book so much, I’m sure you’ll love The Far Pavilions, which I think is even better. 🙂

  4. cirtnecce says:

    I am so glad you enjoyed the book Helen! I sometime get worried when i recommend a book so hard that I may be pushing folks into reading things they may not enjoy! Wonderful review and you have captured the essence of book wonderfully…its the color, the heat and the madness that Kaye brought out so vividly that I loved about her books! I too enjoy the dynamics between Alex Randall and Krishana Prasad whose race prevented them from being powerful allies and great friends and it was one of the most authentic example of the British-India relationships. Winter….well she is trying, but I still make allowances. I was 15 when I read it and Winter did not seem so silly at that point! 😉 Thank You for joining the read along! It was a pleasure reading this book with you!

    • Helen says:

      I loved it, Cirtnecce! As The Far Pavilions was already one of my favourite books, I think there was always a good chance that I would enjoy this one too but your readalong was the perfect opportunity for me to finally read it. Maybe I would have found Winter less silly if I’d read first this book as a teenager too.

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