It begins in 1657. The Mughal Empire has not yet begun its rapid decline, though its glory days are past. Carlos Dasana, head of a Portuguese trading family in Goa, is facing financial ruin. The Dutch control European trade in Asia, and most of his countrymen have abandoned India for Brazil. In a desperate ploy to secure a trade monopoly in Muslim-ruled Bijapur, Carlos arranges for a bribe - baksheesh - of significant value to be sent to Wali Khan, Bijapur's grand vizier. If all goes to plan, Wali Khan will be made regent until the widowed Sultana's young son comes of age, some years later.
The bribe in question is a stunning young woman, Maya, a Hindu dancer trained to perform for and sleep with the holy men of the temple at Orissa. Maya, along with Carlos's spoiled niece Lucinda, Lucinda's playboy cousin Geraldo, and Maya's guardian, a eunuch named Slipper, must make their way along the road to Bijapur, accompanied by a party of guards and two "settlement men," skilled negotiators for both Dasana and the grand vizier. Their adventure begins immediately.
I found The Temple Dancer an exciting and fun historical epic, rich in incident, drama, forbidden passion, and intrigue. I can't vouch for the descriptions of travel via howdah atop an elephant, not having experienced it myself, but it certainly felt nail-bitingly realistic. The howdah sways as the beast walks, and I mentally held on to my chair as the elephant carrying Lucinda, Maya, and Slipper ascended the Western Ghats via narrow mountain passes.
The third-person viewpoint varies in distance; Speed carefully selects when to reveal his characters' innermost selves. Lucinda matures from a self-absorbed, Eurocentric heiress to a confident, worldly-wise young woman who, through the people she meets en route, comes to appreciate the diversity in Indian culture. Maya - not her birth name - knows well that she's a slave. In her attempt to control her situation, she invites an illicit affair in which she discovers her own sensuality and, in one heartbreakingly evocative scene, becomes trapped by her pursuit of it. The mystery quotient remains high throughout. Despite being thrown together on the same journey, many characters secretly pursue their own agendas.
Although I didn't get to know all of the characters in depth, it felt appropriate to the shifting cultural milieu in a land where Portuguese colonial traders, Muslim soldiers, glamorous former concubines, and crafty eunuchs vie for power. Speed also presents readers with fabulous set pieces of the palaces, courtyards, and natural landscapes of India. It makes for a vivid armchair journey through a place that no longer exists except through historical records and imaginative fictional accounts such as this.
The Temple Dancer was published by St. Martin's Press in hardcover in 2006. Tiger Claws is second in the proposed trilogy, and I hope there'll eventually be a third.