The colonial British occupy their station at Krishnapur with the supreme confidence that comes from their firm (though misguided) belief in their social, moral and technological superiority. But all that changes in short order when they come under siege from Indian soldiers who have revolted against British rule. As the siege grinds on, what starts as a temporary adventure devolves into serious hardship that threatens the entire colony with death from starvation, disease, or attack. Throughout it all, the British carry on. Their confidence in Victorian civilization gives them a tremendous strength of character.
Against this background, themes dealing with art, education, scientific progress, and morality play out through the interests and intrigues of the various characters. One of the best things about this novel is that it would be easy to ignore all the themes and symbols, and simply enjoy the gripping, adventurous plot. But there are plenty of deeper meanings to be teased out, if the reader is so inclined.
Farrell inserts a fair amount of humor--difficult as that is to believe, given the subject matter--and plenty of compassion for his characters, while refusing to sugar-coat their inability to self-evaluate and overcome their own shortcomings. Knowing the flaws in their beliefs doesn't keep the reader from caring about the characters, wanting to see them rescued, and hoping they will learn from their experience.
For more (highly enthusiastic) information, see my review at Hotchpot Cafe.