I picked up the White Rajah early on in my trip to the Maritimes this summer almost entirely on the strength of the author's name. I had only read The Cruel Sea and really enjoyed it. The White Rajah sounded like a very different kind of book with an adventurous, possibly swashbuckling premise. It also had a cool map of some south seas island. As you can see, those elements were strong as they outweighed the super cheesy cover.
It's the epic story of Richard Marriot, younger brother of an artisocratic family in the 18th century who is left nothing but a globe and a pair of pistols by his wealthy father. The book opens at the day of the funeral when Richard's stuffy older brother basically throws him out of his newly inherited estate. After this dramatic chapter, we jump forward 10 years when Marriott is a pirate captain, sailing the exotic oceans. He stumbles upon the island nation of Makassang and finds himself in an advantageous position, where he can upset the balance of power in a struggle between the ruling Rajah and the resentful buddhist priests. Marriot is soon inculcated into the royal family and the bulk of the book follows the political struggles and his efforts (and lack thereof) to take control and help move the island from its savage state to a more politically enlightened place, with the help of the Rajah's beautiful daughter.
It was a really enjoyable read that suffered in the end by moving away from the adventure and intrigue towards political moralizing. It wasn't heavy-handed, but instead of a tense narrative, Marriot's struggles are sort of undermined by a semi-deus ex machina ending (that also all too easily waves away all the narrative potential of the conflict between Richard and his brother, who is instrumental in the deux ex machina ending). Another problem was the protagonist himself. He is portrayed as a lusty, headstrong young man whose natural energy and charisma (which are wild and out of control when he is a young lord in England) are honed in his years as a south seas freebooter. When he gets to Makassang, he becomes seduced by the easy living and grows soft and oblivious to the dangers around him. It's a great theme, but I felt that it went on for way too long, with the dangers being so obvious and Marriot himself being so lame that I grew frustrated with him. So instead of personal growth and a kick-ass return to form, we get lots of lots of him being passive while worse and worse shit goes on around him until finally the situation is intolerable, at which point a British gun ship comes out and saves the day. He is never really given the agency that would pay off all the built-up potential and so the reader is left a bit unsatisfied.
Still, the first half of the book is gripping, the situation and location are exotic and richly developed and portrayed. It was an enjoyable read and I would keep an eye out for any other Monsarrat books. He is very skilled at telling a story, enough so that I am not ready to say that some of the choices he made in this book reflect an actual flaw in his skill as an author.