Jade Dragon Mountain

Suggested by Brad Nelson • Li Du is an exiled imperial librarian. Arriving in Dayan, he finds the city preparing for a visit by the Emperor who will command a solar eclipse. But a sudden murder may embarrass his magistrate uncle. The uncle reluctantly assents to setting Li Du loose on the investigation hoping to clear it up before the Emporer’s arrival.
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45 Responses to Jade Dragon Mountain

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Note that there is a follow-up to this novel with Li Du: The White Mirror.

    Even though I have yet to finish this, I’m putting it up on the Bookshelf (which is a concise compendium of good things to read, not a full review of books, some of which might not be worth reading). I’m 41% into this one. And if it get’s no better, or completely falls of a cliff, this 41% has been well worth the time. If it’s a complete dog, I’ll remove this post (perhaps switching it to a full review).

    Mr. Kung could no doubt advise us in regards to the authenticity of some of the details, if not (more importantly) the overall Chinese Zeitgeist and aesthetics. As he has advised me before, even if a couple of Chinese absolutely hate each other, that would not preclude them from partaking in a formal tea ceremony together. There is a high aesthetic and sense of ceremonial order that pervades this novel. You are given glimpses of Chinese gardens, art, food, clothing, all of which seem to be in pure shades of gold, silver, red, and azure, often in motifs of dragons.

    There is much refined ritual in this book. And it is refreshing compared to our Marilyn Manson culture of freaks and vulgarians. That is not to say that China does not have its lower classes or its murderers (it clearly does in this one). Nor is it to say that it doesn’t pay a heavy price for the top-down order of its imperial style of society where the very words of the Emperor, by definition, are infallible.

    That he predicts solar eclipses with the secret help of his Jesuits in order to show his subjects his divine nature is just, as we might understand in our day, mere political theatre. But this is heady stuff for commoners who have little or no scientific background.

    Li Du is a wandering intellectual who wanders into Dayan where his uncle (or at least a relative) is magistrate. Li Du took no part in treason but had the bad luck of having befriended a few intellectuals who were. Li Du was thus exiled instead of executed. In this case, his family was spared quite a bit of shame because there is a custom whereby the wife, with the father’s permission, can have the marriage considered dissolved and he can prepare for her a new match.

    But for the magistrate, the shame is all too real. Despite being a magistrate in an important city on the main trade-route for tea, he thinks he is all but exiled himself to this remote outpost because of Li Du. And we don’t know enough yet in the book to contradict his view.

    So who done it? A younger and jealous Jesuit? The representative from the East Indian Company? The Khampa in the nearby hills who are known as raiders? The last relatives of the Ming who were replaced by the current Emperor when his horsemen invaded from the north and are known to reside in these parts? The magistrate’s clearly intelligent and calculating head concubine? The unknown forces scribbling scandalous accusation on the walls about the Emperor?

    The stage is set for Li Du to figure this all out. He is an unlikely Sherlock Holmes. He is soft-spoken, unexcitable, methodical, logical, and altogether unintimidating of a figure. Author Elsa Hart has done a credible job of defining the personalities of a few of the key players. Often this seems to be a chore for the mystery or crime-novel writer, something that surely made Agatha Christie a star. As much as I like reading the Thorndyke novels, R. Austin Freeman is hardly the master of literary characters. Although he tries, the men are often nearly undistinguishable from each other and the women are clearly hollowed-out representations of he fair sex.

    But Hart has, at least so far, shown some skill in creating characters. And this is precisely the kind of novel that lives or dies on the small and gentle details. You could sum-up in a paragraph what has happened 41% into this novel. But it’s the writing that is a pleasure to read in its own right.

    Well, we’ll see how this story holds up. Although his magistrate uncle wished to sweep the murder under the carpet and blame it on the Khampa (anything to avoid scandal and even the perception that anything is amiss), he relents to Li Du leading a quiet investigation into the affair. Li Du has found at least prima facie evidence that the Khampa had nothing to do with it. Word has leaked out in this regard (the magistrate’s household has more leaks than the White House) and so his hand is somewhat forced.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I would ask you to put Uris’s The Haj on the Bookshelf. I was simply going to recommend this previously, but decided I had more to say about it.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 62 percent into “Jade Dragon Mountain.” And what started out with a little literary tourism of 1708 China (and its politics) has devolved in a murder mystery little distinguishable from anyone else’s. That’s not to say it is without interest. But there is now nothing particularly original about it, nor does this now need to be set in China. This could be set in a manor house in England. It’s just the same widgets in a different place. That may change, of course. Perhaps this is why I like the Thorndyke mysteries. At least Freeman occasionally attempts to do something different.

    That is, the realism of the novel, which gave it some charm and readability — and certainly presented some cultural and historical facts that I did not otherwise know — has been doffed for conventionality. The conventional murder mystery contains these elements:

    1) A plethora of suspects. Perhaps this is why reverse mysteries are so intriguing because in real life, I doubt there are more than a couple suspects, if that.

    2) Red herrings and fluid suspicions. You’re steered toward suspicion of various characters, usually serially. Those familiar with mysteries know to put the greatest weight on those who are suspected early but have since apparently been cleared. Thus although my bet still remains on Lady Chen (the magistrate’s wife who will basically lose her lifestyle, as she knows it, if her husband is promoted to a more prestigious job in Beijing…she is of high station out in the outskirts of Dayan but would be way down on the pecking order among the magistrate’s wives, consorts, etc., he still has stashed in Beijing), one of the first to have been apparently cleared is a botanist traveling in the guise of a Jesuit.

    3) A public or semi-public murder at a function attended by many (but not too many). Relating to #1, all these suspects hang around for their interviews (or hang around because of the ongoing event), each of which tends to dig a little deeper as the sleuth uncovers info from others and is able to tighten the screws and catch people in lies. Which relates to point #4…

    4) Usually everyone has a motive to commit the murder as a labyrinthine network of past and present affairs, business dealings, relations, wills, conflicts, grudges, etc., are uncovered by the sleuth. What starts out looking simple is then turned into a spider’s web of dates, facts, events, and motivations that you need a scorecard to keep track of, if you can keep track of it at all.

    5) There’s usually a Peter Clifford (McCloud) or a Captain Doby (Starsky & Hutch) who is as dangerous to the resolution of the mystery as the machinations of the criminal are because of the sleuth’s superior’s insistence that he is barking up the wrong tree or should just leave things alone. Li Du’s cousin, the magistrate, fulfills this function.

    No doubt you can add more to the stereotypical elements of the over-used script of a typical murder mystery.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished “Jade Dragon Mountain” tonight and have already electronically borrowed the sequel, TheWhite Mirror.

    Although the mechanics of the murder mystery itself turned conventional, there were enough twists and turns, as well as a satisfying ending, to want to move onto the second book in the series. We’ll see how it holds up both as a historical novel and a mystery.

    I’m hoping there is more immersion in the culture and less ticking off of bullet points of the stereotypical murder mystery. In “Jade Dragon Mountain” we did not get to know many of the characters well. And a small spoiler coming if you want to be completely surprised, but one of the characters from the first novel (a gregarious storyteller) we did get to know a little about will be traveling with Li Du and the fake Jesuit priest back to India. We’ll see if their travels elicit the essence of Kipling’s “Kim” as they travel through the high mountains.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I picked up this book yesterday evening and reached the point where the rather blabby Jesuit has died.

      I will continue reading tonight and let you know what I think.

      One thing I will mention is that Yunnan was considered the back of beyond for most of China. I never visited the place, but I had a partner who did and his description of his trip was pretty horrifying. This was thirty years ago, so I don’t know how/if things have changed. Certainly, Yunnan had an abundance of mineral wealth, which the Chinese must be exploiting. Another interesting point is that, apparently, roses originated in Yunnan. Of course, they looked nothing like the modern roses one sees today, but then many things have changed over time.

      The closest I ever got to Yunnan was Guangxi, and that was strange and primitive enough for me, at the time.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Yunnan’s mineral wealth has been exploited to some degree for decades; it was China’s main source of tin, and possibly tungsten. It’s heavily mountainous, though with many valleys from all the rivers (most of the major rivers of southeastern Asia pass through it). It was also the Chinese terminus (at Kunming) of the Burma Road, so important in early World War II; the railroad from Hanoi to China (so important in the Vietnam War) also went there. I once saw a photo of a truck convoy on a twisty section of the Burma Road (several hairpin turns within a short length of road).

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          it was China’s main source of tin

          That is why my partner traveled there. The tin ore in China is hard-rock as opposed to alluvial. The concentrate is pretty dirty so it must go through more refining (electrolysis) than the tin concentrate found across S.E. Asia.

          I could tell you a fair amount about tin and wolframite/scheelite (tungsten ores). I dealt with thousands of tons of both over a long metals career.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Hahahah. The blabby Jesuit.

        An interesting thing if roses originated in Yunnan. Certainly this book paints that area — and beyond the main setting of the city to the tea-making places — as backwaters, and unhealthily so.

        I found this book readable because all of the history and small detail stuff was new to me. The plot? Well, it’s okay. I found the follow-up book to this to be better in all regards. But your mileage may very.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          The Jesuit had spent decades in China and spoke the language fluently. Anyone with such a background would know better than to go around speaking to strangers about sensitive subjects, particularly in public. As I have said before, one of the important things which I learned while living in Asia is that truth is dangerous.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          “Unhealthily so”? Seems odd phrasing, though apparently the Black Death started with the Mongols conquering Yunnan and picking up the disease. It passed among them until it reached a Genoese trading port in the Crimea, which a bunch of Mongols unsuccessfully besiedged. In revenge for their failure, they launched dead horses into the port, and their fleas, by way of other animals (especially rats) and infected with the plague, then went on to other ports, such as Constantinople, and eventually most of Europe.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Heat. Humidity. Bugs. Fever. But great for growing tea leaves. What a place it must be if the plague originated there.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              There are other areas where it could have come from. The Plague of Justinian was first noticed in Pelusium, on the northern Sinai coast. From there it spread to others — including Constantinople, of course. It happened on this occasion to start in Yunnan, around 1280 — taking over 60 years to reach Europe.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                It’s probably no accident that no one is too willing to step up and announce their city “Home of the Plague.” Home of the biggest ball of yarn, maybe. But not the plague.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I am half-way through the book have no qualms with the author’s presentation re the settings of, and information about, early eighteenth century China.

    The one thing I find unbelievable is Li Du.

    If the Chinese follow one rule, it is to keep their noses out of situations which don’t concern them unless there is some clear advantage or profit to be had by getting involved. This is especially the case when getting involved could be obviously dangerous or costly. Worse still, Li Du is a marked man, an exile who is walking on very thin ice to begin with. Furthermore, the idea that one would seek justice for some strange foreigner is just about unbelievable. The Chinese have not been big on justice throughout history. Harmony is more their thing and that means a lot has to be swept under the carpet. “It’s not my business”, could be the Chinese national motto.

    Other than that, I think the Li Du character is fine.

    I believe Hart tries to make a somewhat middling detective story more interesting by using an exotic setting. As you know, I have no problem with exotic settings, but I do wish authors would not use them as a method to pep up their somewhat tepid stories.

    It’s something like putting a bikini on Whistler’s Mother to make her sexier.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      “Other than that”? That sounds like the old chestnut, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        You got it!

        The Li Du character acts more like a 21st century Westerner and would be more believable if he were named Doug Lee.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          This is a frequent problem in literature, movies, etc. — giving characters a modern outlook that would have been unheard of in their milieu.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I totally agree about Li Du, although I would have described it from another direction…and think I did in my initial summary regarding a lack of motivation for this character to do what he’s doing. He seems sort of a weak vanilla stand-in for a literary third-person point of view. Li Du is somewhere between a character in his own right and the literary third-person technique.

      He’s better in the subsequent novel, The White Mirror, wherein he gets swept up in events and thus his great intellect is engaged if only by the sheer necessity of not being the next victim in whatever skulduggery is going on.

      And although I don’t have the background regarding the Chinese sensibility, I think in Shinju, a novel by a different author, this aspect of justice comes up. It’s openly acknowledged by the author that honor, duty, family, etc., are the backbone of Chinese (in this case, Japanese) culture but still Sano Ichiro acts in a way that even to my relatively ignorant Asian sensibilities seems Westernized. Oh well.

      It is indeed a middling detective story set in exotic scenery. For me, the exotic scenery was just enough to carry it through. I think the story in The White Mirror improves on that as well.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        This is more like the China I know. Can you imagine how it was three hundred years ago?


        Still, I have seen similar things amongst our brethren south of the border. Years ago, my father was in a hospital in Laredo, Texas and the Mexican woman who was “cleaning” the room, dipped a rag in the mop-bucket and proceeded to wipe my father’s bed table with it.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yikes. Toilet brushes to clean drinking glasses. Is that a lack of basic hygiene knowledge or disdain for their customers?

          I’m not a neat freak. I’m not Felix Unger. But if there are many things in this life I’m unsure of, one of the things I’m very sure of is that “cleanliness is next to godliness.”

          You can separate the barbarians from the civilized by how clean they are in body and abode. There is no civilization without proper sanitation. A person can go on and on about how this or that needs to be fixed, but if they are wallowing in their own filth, they have missed the boat.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I believe it was Somerset Maugham who said that William James never created a believable Englishman in his writings, because James did not grow up in England. I think the same thing can be said about Elsa Hart and Chinese characters.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Were Joseph Conrad’s English characters realistic? I’ve only read one of his books, in high school (Victory), and I would have no way to say how realistic his characters were.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Somerset Maugham described the model beta-male in “Of Human Bondage.” Philip, with the bad foot, was pathetic in his need for a particular woman. He degraded himself in the extreme in his pursuit of Mildred. And Mildred herself is the near perfect model for today’s virtueless, needy, and manipulative woman. Yikes. I never want to read that novel again but am glad I read it once.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            I read the novel when I was 20. It was a good lesson.

            I also read his, “The Moon and a Sixpence”, “Cakes and Ale”, “The Razor’s Edge” and numerous of his short stories. One which I felt summed up my reading habits was titled something like “The Book Bag.” Another one which comes to mind was “The Lotus Eater.”

            I don’t believe I have read anything else by Maugham since that time in my late teens/early twenties.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              I think I have “The Moon and Sixpence” sitting around somewhere, but I don’t believe I’ve read any more Somerset beyond “Of Human Bondage.”

              • Timothy Lane says:

                We had a story by Maugham — I don’t recall the title — in my college English course. As far as I know, that’s all I’ve read by him.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                As I recall, “The Moon and a Sixpence” was a take on Paul Gaugain, (who was a real piece of work), with English as opposed to French characters.

                I preferred “The Razor’s Edge.”

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                My Dutch friend absolutely hates Gauguin. But I do like his art. Many artists are completely immoral bastards. I think Gauguin was one of these.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I have finished the book and found it reasonably entertaining. It was interesting enough that I have decided to look into “The White Mirror” in the hope that the author improves with experience.

        Nevertheless, there were a couple pretty clear weaknesses to the novel.

        When Li Du started to tell everyone who the murderer was, I was sure he was about to remove a mask and reveal that he was Hercule Poirot. The author’s technique was so reminiscent of Agatha Christie at her worst that I laughed. Several pages could have been saved and the book would have been better had the author thought this out just a little bit more.

        Just as bad, at least to me, was the reason for the priest’s murder. Without giving away too much, knowing how strictly controlled court papers were, I simply do not believe there is any way that a forgery could have been substituted for the original document, particularly by the person mentioned.

        Finally, I think the second crime makes no sense at all. Clearly, the author came up with it as a means of Li Du obtaining a personal meeting with the emperor.

        The above notwithstanding, if one is not too worried about details “Jade Dragon Mountain” is not a bad read.

        And just an observation about the Japanese and Chinese. They are very different peoples and have very different cultures. Broadly speaking, I would say they don’t like each other that much.

        The one place were the two cultures seem to intertwine and compliment each other is Taiwan. Taiwan was a Japanese colony for over 50 years. In spite of this the Taiwanese seem to admire the Japanese and maintain close relations with Japan.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Even with the restrictions in their Self-Defense Force, Japan is probably the only possible military rival to China in the area. That may help encourage close Taiwanese relations with them. Besides, they’re probably willing to be friendly with anyone willing to befriend them. Then, too, according to William J. Lederer in A Nation of Sheep, Japan left them with complete literacy, which would never have happened under Chinese rule.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            What you say is true, but I was thinking more of the cultural aspects than of foreign relations.

            The Taiwanese I know don’t appear to have a bitter taste in their mouth from the Japanese colonial days. That is interesting considering how much anti-colonial/anti-West nonsense is bandied about these days.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          The author’s technique was so reminiscent of Agatha Christie at her worst that I laughed.

          Again, I completely agree. I eye-rolled my way through the Chinese Agatha Christie impersonation.

          Yeah. Priest’s murder. Dumb. Mr. Kung, I find this consistent with something common in movies: Great special FXs, lousy plot and characters (although many of the characters, aside from the main one, were okay). The “special effects” of “Jade Dragon Mountain” was the exotic locale, customs, etc. And that’s not to underrate them. The expertise in programming computerized special effects for movies seems to me synonymous with the academic research required of a historical novel. Either is no small thing and the skill should be admired.

          But when it comes time to insert the human element, Progressive culture just has no humanity left. I think it’s because of its narrow scope (it think it knows a lot but knows very little) and, really, it’s inability to have an imagination. Anyone growing up in Progressive culture has had their minds restricted by inanity and political correctness. I do believe people just become unaccustomed to using their imagination (aka “thinking for themselves”).

          A poison dart would have been far simpler than the contraption that was built. Sort of James-Bond-cool but there must be easier and more reliable ways to kill someone.

          As I noted, I loved the first 40% of the novel and then it became just a Chinese Agatha Christie. Still, I did find “The White Mirror” to be an improvement. Granted, there is much repetition in that story. It all takes place in one relatively small locale. But the story seemed more realistic.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I think it was Isaac Asimov who, in discussing modern movies, opined that if your primary praise is for the special effects, then that probably indicates that the plot and characters aren’t worth talking about.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve 62% through Elsa Hart’s third book in the Li Du series, City of Ink. I’d mentioned that I would report back when I was at least halfway through the book.

    City of Ink lacks the grandeur, adventure, and sense of the exotic of her first two Li Du books. This is a rather run-of-the-mill murder mystery. There is no apparent reason that it even need be set in China. In the previous two books, at times the plot was a bit missing but it was made up for by immersion in 18th century Chinese culture and the interesting details of life then and there.

    This one is the opposite. Old friend, Hamza the storyteller, comes along for the ride in this one as well. But so far he only hints at stories. Unlike the second book, there have been no intriguing tall-tales as a fun diversion.

    But there are constant references to Beijing’s walls. Walls, walls everywhere. That seems to stand in for historical research. Once in a while Li Du is offered tea, but that’s about as much immersion in Chinese culture as we’ve gotten so far. Walls, talking about having tea (no actual tea ceremony), and lots of talk about ink stones.

    But the story as a mystery reads just fine. But its style is much more perfunctory. There is little grandeur or creativity. This is a rather rote story so far. Two people are found dead. Li Du doesn’t believe the man accused of the crime did it. His higher-ups, who are always looking for advancement, and thus no loose ends, want a quick conclusion to the investigation. Li Du (with some help from his boss, who is a relation) continues the investigation under the guise of simply nailing down some niggling details as he makes his official report which supposedly will simply conclude what has already been concluded by the higher-ups.

    Li Du had been in exile in the first two books. Circumstances in the second book allow him to return to the capital. But he cannot return to his former job as a librarian in the emperor’s library because the emperor has forbidden scholars from working there. The initial reason for Li Du’s exile was that his teacher was implicated in a plot against the emperor that was apparently hatched from the imperial library which isn’t that far from the emperor’s personal apartments.

    There are no interesting characters to speak of in this. Hamza so far has been muffled. And Li Du, as in the other books, lacks a notable personality. Lady Chen, from the second book, has made a brief appearance (yes…she has made it back to Beijing which was her goal) but her role as yet is nothing of consequence.

    I suppose if there is one area besides the walls of Beijing that are emphasized, it is the state exams. This is basically a civil service test that thousands of young hopeful men will take but very few will pass. But if they do pass, they are basically set for life. They may become an incompetent administrator because the state exams don’t specifically test for practical aptitude. They are more like Jeopardy!-like quizzes of obscure facts.

    Somehow I find the book readable enough. But clearly Elsa Hart’s heart isn’t in this one.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      From what I’ve read, this seems to be a reasonably accurate description of the civil service exam. I think Confucian culture was on of the things they tested, so KFZ might know something about it. Those who passed could become mandarins — through Frederick Townsend Ward got mandarin rank without the test, based on his creation and command of the Ever Victorious Army. (Ward was killed, and the army achieved its greatest fame under Charles Gordon. That’s why he was known as Chinese Gordon, after all. He and Ward show up in one of the Flashman books, set in the Taiping Rebellion.)

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        One of the main requirements to pass the Chinese civil service exams was a huge vocabulary.

        I don’t recall the exact number, but I believe one had to be able to read something like 20,000 characters in order to pass. Today, a modern newspaper can be read if one knows 1,800-2,000 characters.

        One emperor was quoted as saying something to the effect that he didn’t have to worry about rebellion because he had all the smartest men in his bag (pocket) due to the way the bureaucracy and the civil service exams were set up.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          An interesting note about the practical use of these exams to the emperor. I think Ms. Hart would have benefited from you as a technical consultant. Comments like this integrated into the book would have been highly valuable and made things much more interesting.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          It’s easy for most gaijin (admittedly a Japanese term, but that reflects were I get much of this information) to forget (if they ever even learn) just how many characters there are in syllabaries such as Chinese and Japanese.

          Elizabeth was able to read the latter, and pointed out that the Japanese got many of their characters from Chinese — though the pronunciations and meanings were different. She said this was why, for example, the Japanese carrier Shoho was also given as Ryukaku. All 4 syllables are in fact Japanese as well, and in fact used in other carrier names.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Japanese has three different alphabets.

            Kanji is the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters.

            Hiragana which is used for Japanese origin words and is somewhat phonetic. It has symbols for sounds like ka, ki, ke, ko, ku, ma, mi, me, mo, mu, etc.

            Katakana which is used for foreign origin words which have found their way into Japanese use. It is also based on sounds like Hiragana.

            All three can be mixed together in the same sentence.

            Tis a bother.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Elizabeth has discussed this with me, though I don’t think she mentioned which used Chinese characters. I’m pretty sure she knows katakana as well as at least one other type. A book I read on Operation Downfall included a propaganda sheet dropped on Japan that showed various island in a clock face, with Japanese characters. She read them all off.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              “Tis a bother” indeed. Yikes. Imagine combining all that, although English as well ia a language that combines helter-skelter a whole bunch of stuff.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished Elsa Hart’s City of Ink last night.

    I found it readable to the end, just underwhelming in terms of majesty or mystery. If you like the characters (to the extent that Li Du has any, but certainly Hamza does), that can sometimes be enough.

    Without giving too much away, the Emperor makes an appearance near the end. And it makes you realize just how much immersion in Chinese culture this book was missing — not to mention just sheer variety.

    Some books (perhaps many books) use the technique (I don’t know what it’s called) of having several story threads or points of view going on at the same time. Two or three is often a good number. In some adventure you might read about what the heroes are doing but you also might have some behind-the-scenes look at what the villains or doing. And there may still another third thread going about what some sub-group of heroes is doing. (Think about how “The Return of the Jedi” is split into different factions.)

    In this one — just to break up the rote linear style of the story — it might have been good to follow Hamza when he is set on the mission to recover a particular book that Li Du needs to solve a mystery. And it certainly would have been good to get into the mind of the Emperor and show what he knew about what Li Du or his son were doing, or what he suspected they were doing. You could then add some of the interesting details of court life.

    Like I said, this book feels uninspired and obligatory. It was a task to complete. No joy in it. Very little inspiration or creativity. I can barely think of a choice of words or a single simile that caught my eye. Still, it plods on and is very competent writing and not without a certain amount of descriptive flow. Rarely (perhaps never) does Hart bore us to death with, say, an opening paragraph giving a minute description of what someone is wearing and how they look, how the folds of her red robe catch the radiant orange light of sunset, and how the color her hair reminds one of a raven, and her nose has a little crooked part to it, and her sleeves betray a slight stain of tea, and her bearing is erect and magisterial, and on and on — all potentially good and useful details to set the stage, but it’s like trying to eat an entire 12-course dinner in one spoonful. Not only is such a technique too over-packed but it’s such a boring one and so over-done, you have to wonder why so many writers continue to do it. Certainly I doubt that most readers find this interesting.

    So there is a breeziness in her writing even if it is uninspired. I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. I’m just trying to make my description as accurate and useful as possible. If you read the first two books in the series, you could do worse than read this one because there is just so much utter trash out there passing for literature.

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