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Lies that Blind: A Novel of Late 18th Century Penang

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Malaya, 1788:
Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd jeopardises his future in ways he never could have imagined. He risks his wealthy father’s wrath to ride the coat-tails of Captain Francis Light, an adventurer governing the East India Company’s new trading settlement on Penang. Once arrived on the island, Jim—as Light’s assistant—hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But the naïve young man soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: Pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him and Light perilously close to infamy: a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman.

276 pages, Paperback

Published October 19, 2021

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About the author

E.S. Alexander

1 book4 followers
Pen name for the fiction books by Liz Alexander.

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Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
Profile Image for Rosie Amber.
Author 0 books118 followers
December 2, 2021
Lies That Blind is eighteenth century biographical fiction set in the East Indies, based on a true story.

Narrated by Jim Lloyd, a young aspiring journalist, the story is set around the life of Captain Francis Light. He was a British pioneer who created the settlement of George Town on the Malay island of Penang. He also renamed the island the Prince of Wales Island.

In the late 1700s the East Indies were a popular trading area, particularly for spices, and there was much rivalry from European nations over the control of trade. The Dutch East India Company, the British East India Company, the Portuguese and the French all vied for power. At the time, Penang Island was host to a great mix of people; many had fled from their own oppressive leaders. Malays, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Burmans and Siamese had all found their way to the island which, despite Light’s leadership, became a lawless place. Pirates prowled the coast, and there were frequent trade embargoes caused by breakdowns in negotiations with the local sultan.

It’s here that Jim Lloyd plans to make something of his life and hopes, thus, to impress his overbearing father. Taking a job as Light’s clerical assistant, Jim’s primary plan is to write Light’s biography. However, it soon becomes apparent that Light’s visions for George Town and reality are far apart. Jim’s naïveté sees him stumbling along believing much of what he is told and what he sees, until he grows into this experience and finds some much needed direction for his life.

This is a medium-paced story; the author’s research shines through and it paints a good picture of the era and the people. It interested me enough to seek out a map to check out some of the places mentioned in the story and it brought back to mind some of my history lessons about the East Indies. This is the second book that I have recently read with the Dutch East Indies as a theme; it certainly filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge for that part of the world.
Profile Image for Audrey Chin.
Author 10 books44 followers
October 20, 2021
I received an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Having read E.S. Alexanders Lies that Blind, it strikes me as strange that I hadn't been more interested in Penang's history. As far as the administrators in my native Singapore were concerned. Penang was the free-port to beat. It's businessmen were more savvy. It's Peranakan Chinese food and culture more refined. Until Lies that Blind, however, I guess there just wasn't a good enough piece of historical fiction to tempt me to delve deeper.

For me, historical fiction is always the best introduction into the history of a place. E.S. Alexander's book does just that. The macro-events recounted in the book are based on meticulous research and drawn heavily from Captain Francis Light's letters, so one isn't left wondering if the author is confabulating. But, this is not just a story about the early days of Penang and Light's skirmishes with the Sultan of Kedah. We are also given a coming of age story from an interesting angle, a young Englishman who questions both himself and the unsavoury details of the colonialism his country was exporting.

There are far too many stories of this period, written from a white-saviour's viewpoint, with little regard for the experiences of 'the natives'. E.S. Alexander has managed to give us as unbiased a picture of the period as possible while still maintaining the POV of a Englishman.

Once I accepted that I'd be seeing the world from that Englishman's viewpoint, everything else fell together. The prose is masterful. I was swept through the political and commercial negotiations, the adulting pangs, the sieges and sea battles, towards an entirely satisfactory ending with no trouble at all.

I think I'm going to read some non-fiction about the period now.

Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the history of Penang.
Profile Image for Kim Lockhart.
955 reviews127 followers
October 7, 2021
This novel begins exactly as you would expect for a narrative nonfiction book about the imperialism and brutal colonialism of the East India Company. Early on, it shifts to a decidedly more historical fiction posture. Several surprising turns later, you find that you're invested in a character-driven story with all the drama of any mystery thriller. There's more intrigue and layering of plot with each chapter. I was captivated.
7 reviews6 followers
August 17, 2023

E. A. Alexander’s riveting story is grounded in Francis Light’s historical acquisition of Penang on behalf of the British East India Company. In 1771, Light, a country trader, established solid trade relations with various parties in Penang, and in 1786 he took possession of the island, an area dominated by the Dutch traders, by promising the Sultan of Queda military protection from outside forces, a promise he could not deliver on IRL. Things got perilous and the Sultan rallied to retake Penang. Light agreed to pay a sum each year, a sort of lease agreement, that essentially continues to this day.


The narrator, a compelling young fictional character named James Lloyd, leaves his coveted yet dull administrative job at the East India Spice Company (to which his father’s wealth and expectations for young Jim’s success are tied) to make something of himself by taking a position as Francis Light’s administrative assistant and biographer. His goal is to gain notoriety as a journalist rather that pursue his father’s plan for him to make something of himself via rung climbing within the East India Company. But Lloyd has other ideas. “I considered my work to be the most soulless, dismal activity outside of the trials of Sisyphus.” Though tied to his father’s purse strings and seeking his father’s approval, he is not unaware of the Company’s dark side, its “misguided policies that had had disastrous consequences: the famine that had caused ten million Indians to die from starvation; the subsequent loss of tax revenues; the precipitous fall in the value of stock that had led to uncertainty over whether the exorbitant government loan the company had received would ever be repaid, or if it would go bankrupt.”

In 1789, Lloyd lands on Penang and we follow his tumultuous schooling in the realities of political trickery during a dynamic and treacherous situation. Dramatic interpersonal events unfold as Lloyd is caught between a growing distain of Light’s methods, an attraction to a young Dutchman, a friendship with Light’s wife, and his budding loyalty Light’s young son, William. Where will Lloyd’s loyalties rest and who will pay a price? That’s for me to know, and the reader to find out in this fascinating tale of colonization, whoa and deception.

Alexander is a skilled world-building storyteller whose words sparkle with energy and clarity, and I particularly enjoyed the scene-driven plot and the rich rendering of characters. While much of the historical information was new to me, I felt the historical facts and details were artfully woven through the narrative, bringing time and place alive for me. This is a deeply researched piece, for which Alexander drew from multiple sources. It’s a delight to read more about the research that went into this incredible story, as well, on Alexander’s blog.
Ultimately, this is a hero’s journey—Lloyd is our naïve interpreter of events, evolving and growing as he finds his way in a world where various cultural and political interests are at odds—reckoning with deception, racism and heartbreak in a tumultuous time and place.

Profile Image for Susan Lee.
274 reviews4 followers
April 29, 2022
I would like to thank the publisher for giving me the opportunity to read and review this e-ARC. After having read books about Penang from authors like Tan Twan Eng and Tash Aw, I was excited when I heard of this novel. So here is my honest review......

Overall, this is a well-written novel based on Francis Light's friendship with James Lloyd, his assistant. I am amazed at how well it was written, with perfect punctuated English and explained in detail especially of the surroundings, of the flair or plots, trying to bring us, the readers, into the world of James Lloyd.

Unfortunately, as I continue reading it, I do find the prose to be monotonous and eventually it fell flat for me. At some point, I did speed read as I just want to finish it and also to know how it eventually ends. There were a few key plots revolving around James Lloyd implicating Francis Light, his wife, his son, a Dutchman, a Nakhoda and a Sultan with an unexpected twist. All in all, I liked how it has ended though I wasn't expecting it to end that way.

I would like to thank the publisher for giving me the opportunity to read and review this e-ARC. After having read books about Penang from authors like Tan Twan Eng and Tash Aw, I was excited when I heard of this novel. So here is my honest review......

Overall, this is a well-written novel based on Francis Light's friendship with James Lloyd, his assistant. I am amazed at how well it was written, with perfect punctuated English and explained in detail especially of the surroundings, of the flair or plots, trying to bring us, the readers, into the world of James Lloyd.

Unfortunately, as I continue reading it, I do find the prose to be monotonous and eventually it fell flat for me. At some point, I did speed read as I just want to finish it and also to know how it eventually ends. There were a few key plots revolving around James Lloyd implicating Francis Light, his wife, his son, a Dutchman, a Nakhoda and a Sultan with an unexpected twist. All in all, I liked how it has ended though I wasn't expecting it to end that way.
Profile Image for Book Reviewer.
1,714 reviews124 followers
July 20, 2022
After being banished to Calcutta two years prior by his British father, Jim Lloyd decides to leave this place when the opportunity to live up to his ambitions presents itself. Lies That Blind by E.S Alexander is based on a true story taking place in Malaya during the 18th century. Starting off in India, Jim heads to Penang in Malaya to become Captain Francis Light’s new assistant in order to write a chronicle about this fame-driven captain. The readers will follow his new life in this new place where he needs to adapt and make trustworthy friendships.

This fascinating story is written using rich details and historical facts. The readers are brought into what life was like in Penang as if they were the ones settling there, and they witness the growing friendship between Jim and Light. It is clear that the author did a lot of research about the Malaya culture, embracing it without disrespecting it. This shows through Jim’s love for other cultures and mainly towards the Malay’s religion and ways of living. Furthermore, being a historical novel, this book contains a lot of trade and military tactics, allowing the readers to understand how trade used to work during colonial times.

While I enjoyed the book I felt that the story seemed slow in some chapters; being told from Jim’s point of view, he describes some details that seem irrelevant and/or slightly dull. But I also appreciate how this gives the story an air of authenticity and shows how one’s interests and opinions can differ from another’s.

The author teaches readers a lot about this time period and about Malaya colonization while being respectful and not overlooking the harsh facts surrounding colonization. This exciting adventure novel gives readers a look at the trading aspects of colonization of Malaya through a compelling coming-of-age narrative.
Profile Image for Sharon Schweitzer.
Author 0 books22 followers
October 19, 2021
As the author to Access to Asia, I find it refreshing that a European author, E.S. Alexander, has completed such a vast amount of research about Malay culture in the late 18th century. As a self-proclaimed nerd, I am duly impressed that she even drilled down to reading an important book entitled The Hikayat Abdullah, written by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, a Malacca-born Munshi of Singapore, first published in 1849, as part of her research. Having lived in Penang for several years, E.S. Alexander has shown a deeper sense of place than someone writing purely from their imagination or desk research. As an interculturalist who studies power distance, I was intrigued by the inclusion of Malay 'peribahasa' or proverbs, as well as insights into how sultans and chiefs wielded power over the 'rakyat' or general populace during that point in history. It is a pleasure to read a historical novel that looks beyond the 'usual suspects' of Tudor England or the Revolutionary War period, one that brings to life a story inspired by true, chronicled events and will expose Western readers to a fascinating time and place: Malaya in the 18th century. Sharon Schweitzer
Profile Image for Siau Mei.
6 reviews2 followers
September 11, 2023
A novel set in Penang in the 18th century and featuring the historical figure Captain Francis Light, this brings back memories of the history classes during my early teenage years. As a Malaysian, this well-paced and well-plotted story intrigued me to learn more about this snippet in the history of Penang and the legacy of Francis Light.

The main character, young Jim Lloyd, was caught in the centre of the intrigue and dynamics of the relations of Francis Light, Sultan of Kedah and the East India Company. Jim's story is seamlessly intertwined with the events unfolding then in Penang and his struggles with truth, loyalty, justice, friendship, compassion and love.

The setting was meticulously put together and I imagined myself transported to 18th century India and Penang. One gets the sense of the sights, smells and cacophony of sounds at the trading port in Penang; the narrow alleys and walkways; the rustic village houses; the dense jungle; and the crumbling and not too secure Fort Cornwallis.

As I revisit this snippet in the history of Penang, I came away pondering about adventurers, fortunes made and unmade and reverberations of these events.
Profile Image for Mindy H.
3 reviews1 follower
October 20, 2021
I quickly became absorbed by this newly-released novel by former Austinite E.S. Alexander, now of Penang, Malaysia. She has an interesting "story behind the story" as this is her debut novel after 22 internationally published non-fiction books. Nevertheless, it's clear that the author has full command of writing a novel given that Lies That Blind has such a compelling plot, interesting (mainly historical) characters, and fascinating setting.

As the author of the forthcoming book ‘Women of Austin,' I love reading strong female characters. Martinha Rozells, Francis Light's common-law wife, holds a tremendous amount of influence over the protagonist, Jim Lloyd. It is largely through her strength that Jim is transformed out of his original naive state to become a very different man. There is also a "twist" that would be too much of a spoiler to put into this review. I wonder if you will spot it? I didn't! A wonderful read...highly recommended.
Profile Image for Helen Hollick.
Author 53 books512 followers
January 7, 2022
Penang seems to be quite popular these last few months for works of historical fiction, which is one of the good things about this genre, for we get to read different history about different people and places – a refreshing change from genteel English Georgian Romance, the Tudors or WWII!

The research in this novel seems meticulous, using the actual letters that Captain Francis Light wrote. The detail of the culture, the era, the location are utterly absorbing; it is very clear that Ms Alexander has great feeling and intricate insight for Penang.

Readers might find the opening narrative more reflective of a non-fiction history book rather than a novel, but keep with it for once we get into the fictional world things really takes off with a character-driven story that incorporates drama, intrigue, suspicions – in short all the stuff of a well-written thoroughly engrossing mystery thriller.

Originally reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
1 review
September 15, 2023
‘Lies that blind’ is an invitation to travel, an extensively well-researched account of what Malaysia (and Penang most particularly) looked like in the XVIII century and a rather audacious fiction which combines true statements from historical figures with both deceitful and naive characters, all of this in a writing style whose music stays with you long after you finish reading the book, stunned by the twist towards the end. If this was not enough, you will also enjoy learning about historical facts which have so far not often been related both from the perspective of the winners and the losers in what remains, to this day, the History claimed by Malaysians. Regardless whether you are a foreigner interested in Malaysia or a Malaysian interested in History, you will learn something new in the most enjoyable way: by turning the pages, intrigued by the plot and the charm of the characters in Dr. Alexander’s book.
Profile Image for Leslie W..
Author 3 books16 followers
November 1, 2021
Award-winning non-fiction writer E.S. Alexander's first foray into fiction is an intriguing story of historical character Francis Light, told through the eyes of an aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd. While tensions mount in the background between Light and Sultan Abdullah of Queda, who owns Penang, Jim uncovers and has to grapple with the lies that Light has told to retain control over the island.

The dry wit of Alexander's prose is reminiscent of classic literature texts I've read, and stays true to the era that the story is set in—but without being inaccessible. What's most compelling about Lies That Blind is how Jim's hero's journey raises important questions about colonisation and morality, bringing a modern sensibility to past events.
January 27, 2023
I loved this book! The author has clearly done a huuuuuuuge amount of research into the time, period, and place and it brings it all to life beautifully. There is no white-savior nonsense here, it's clear-eyed and well-written, so you end of rooting for the main character while also doing a few face palms at his youthful mistakes. The plot is very cleverly done with enough suspense and hints at what's to come that I kept reading one more chapter, even though it was 1am. I have spent a few months in Penang and the story of Captain Light and his brazeness had struck me as being one that really needed to be brought to life in a book - thank you to the author for doing exatly this, better than I could have hoped!
1 review2 followers
October 28, 2021
Happy to recommend this wonderful book recently published by my good friend Dr. Liz Alexander
We met in Malaysia while living both there and I was very fortune to scoop her research and read her first drafts of this fascinating book.
You will learn about the origins of Penang Island in Malaysia and their main characters back then in a very interesting novel.
Challenging research, beautiful outcome.
Enjoy, I am sure you would be looking to visit this lovely island.

Dr. Liz Alexander Congratulations!
Profile Image for Daryl Kho.
Author 2 books16 followers
April 15, 2023
The author has vividly rebuilt late 18th century Penang within the pages of this exquisite book, complete with living, breathing and manytimes also scheming denizens.
Profile Image for Eva Nava.
Author 17 books29 followers
January 18, 2022
This is a refreshing angle on Francis Light's story and the story of Penang. A real page-turner!
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews

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