A lookery at “Jade Dragon Mountain” by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain

Jade Dragon Mountain

Elsa Hart

St. Martin’s Press

Minotaur Books

September 1, 2015

336 pages

$25.99

Elsa Hart’s historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain takes place in early 18th century Dayan, located in China’s southwest province. The Manchu Emperor, the Kangxi of the Qing dynasty is due in the city in six days to command a solar eclipse. For nearly a year, the Emperor has been traveling from Beijing to this outpost of his empire, while the local population has been preparing for his imperial visit and the wonder and power of the eclipse.

Li Du, the exiled and disgraced court librarian arrives in town, unaware of the Emperor’s upcoming presence and the festival to be held in the Kangxi’s honor. As an exile, Li Du must inform the magistrate of the province of his arrival, and obtain permission to pass through the area to his intended destination of Tibet. Tulishen is the province magistrate, and cousin to Li Du. When Li checks in with him, Tulishen is anxious to have his cousin leave the city before the Emperor arrives. It would be inappropriate for an exile of the court to cross paths with the Emperor, and Tulishen does not want to lose face.

But the magistrate allows Li Du to stay for dinner at his mansion. The town is abuzz with activity and visitors, and the magistrate has many guests. China is a closed country, with Jesuits being the only foreigners allowed in the empire. The Emperor favors the order because of their extensive knowledge, and the priests are eager to learn about Chinese history, customs and culture.

There are two Jesuits staying with the magistrate — Brother Martin and Brother Pieter. Other guests include the Arab storyteller, Hamza, who entertains with his tales and Sir Nicholas Grey an ambassador from the East India Company who is to present the Emperor with gifts, and perhaps gain trading rights within the empire.

The household is run by Tulishen’s favorite consort Lady Chen, who has yet to provide the magistrate with a son, Jia Huan the administrator’s efficient secretary, Old Mu the recordkeeper, Mu Gao, the librarian and Old Mu’s cousin, as well as various other staff, including the disgruntled but pretty maid, Bao.

Tulishen hosts an elaborate dinner for his guests, and Hamza provides the entertainment after the meal with his storytelling. Several people come and go during the story, including Brother Pieter, who is later found murdered in his room.

It is imperative that the murderer be caught before the imperial visit in six days. The magistrate calls on his cousin, Li Du, to remain in Dayan to solve the mystery of the murder.

False leads have Li traveling to visit the Khampa traders outside the town, interviewing members of the household, the guests, as well as a few outsiders. Hamza, who is staying at the same inn as Li Du, often discusses the case with Li. The motive for the murder is increasingly confusing and most believe Li Du will not be able to solve the crime prior to the powerful Kangxi’s eclipse.

At first, I was confused about the plot of the book. Jade Dragon Mountain starts with a brief history of the Yunnan territory, the reason for the presence of Jesuits, and background information on the Qing Dynasty. The story is told in 1780, but flashes back to the first decade of the century. Up until the murder, it wasn’t clear where the story was headed.

However, Li Du’s adventures lead the reader into the meat of the mysterious murder. As a historical mystery, the important role of the Jesuits, provincial and imperial politics and history, the inner-workings of a magistrate’s estate, and the politics of trade are explained.

The murderer is elusive, the rush to find the culprit is critical, and the suspects are many. The book was hard to put away when other priorities called. I found myself thinking about the characters and the country wile anxiously waiting to get back to Jade Dragon Mountain to learn more about the hunt and the era.

Once the story gains traction, Elsa Hart’s fast-paced debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain is an intriguing murder mystery wrapped up in historic background. Much is learned about China’s culture at the beginning of the 18th century while Li Du sets about solving the problem of the Jesuit’s untimely death. Elsa Hart is a new author worth following.

With thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Advertisements

A Lookery at: “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok

Riverhead Books (2010)

$25.95

It has been a long time since a novel has captivated me so completely that I have read it in one day. Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation did just that. Author Kwok’s debut novel draws on her own experiences to bring thereader the story of ah-Kim Chang and her mother, Ma.

ah-Kim and Ma are emigrants from Hong Kong who come to New York, desperate to leave Hong Kong before it reverts to Chinese rule in 1997. Sponsored by Ma’s sister Aunt Paula and brother-in-law Uncle Bob, mother and daughter begin their new life in a miniscule and squalid condemned apartment in a Brooklyn slum. Ma is employed at Uncle Bob’s piece-work sweatshop in Chinatown’s garment district, finishing clothing for one and a half cents per skirt. At the same time, Aunt Paula unwittingly provides ah-Kim with her first step toward a better future by giving her a false address that allows her to attend a better public school than the one nearest her home.

It is soon obvious that Kimberly (her new American name) is going to struggle academically in the US in spite of her scholastic success back home in Hong Kong. Likewise, Ma has an impossible quota to fill each day at the clothing factory. Kimberly must join her mother on the job after school every afternoon so that Ma can make her daily allotment of finished skirts.

Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob effectively become the jailers of their relatives and the other workers by paying them for each item shipped rather than a regular minimum hourly wage. In addition, each payday Uncle Bob deducts from Ma’s income, cash to cover her debt to him for medical treatment in Hong Kong, the plane tickets to America, the visas (plus interest on the debt) and utilities for their apartment. Not much cash is left over for food, rent and clothing.

There are others who treat Ma and Kim with kindness. And, once Kim’s talent at school is noticed, both she and her mother realize that Kimberly’s academic aptitude is the key to improving their lives. There will be no help coming from their own relatives.

The struggles of balancing school, work, finances and social situations become staggering for the two women. Both Kim and Ma are forced to make decisions along the way that will have an immense impact on their future together.

The challenges the Changs are faced with and the consequences of their decisions — particularly Kim’s — will have to be explored by you, dearreader. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an excellent novel, great for personal enjoyment or even a book club selection. Easily a 4+ eye rating.