Thursday, March 22, 2018

Review of Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart (Minatour, 2015)

1708. Li Du, an imperial Chinese librarian living in exile, enters the Chinese city of Dayan near to the Tibetan border. He finds the city bustling with visitors who have flocked to Dayan to see the emperor who will shortly be visiting to demonstrate his divine powers by commanding the moon to eclipse the sun. Li Du has little interest in seeing the emperor once again and simply wants to receive the permission of the local magistrate to head north. To his surprise, however, the magistrate is his cousin, sent from Beijing to administer a difficult province. He is invited to stay the night before leaving the next day and to attend the evening banquet attended by visitors to the city. During the meal, a Jesuit priest flees the room and shortly afterwards is found dead in his room. Li Du suspects foul-play, but the magistrate is adamant it was a natural death. Insisting on investigating, Li Du soon discovers it was murder, but his cousin wants the affair hushed up for fear of upsetting the emperor’s plans. At first Li Du agrees to the magistrates wishes, but his sense of injustice will not him leave the case and local rumours force his cousin to allow him to try and find the murderer. And with intrigue and old rivalries and foreign visitors in the magistrate’s palace there are plenty of suspects.

Jade Dragon Mountain is the first book in the Li Du mystery series set in China at the start of the eighteenth century. Li Du is an accomplished scholar and former imperial librarian who has been exiled for the misdeeds of a friend. During his exile he has wandered the fringes of China learning about its people and history. In this opening tale he finds himself in Dayan, a city in the mountainous border area with Tibet, a few days before the visit of the emperor and a solar eclipse. Also visiting the city are four rare foreigners – an elderly Jesuit who is an accomplished astronomer, an ambassador of the East India Company, a younger Jesuit who has an interest in botany, and an Arabian storyteller. When the elderly Jesuit is poisoned in the magistrate’s palace, Li Du starts an investigation. While most of the story concentrates on Li Du’s attempt to solve the crime, Hart also uses the setting in the local magistrate’s palace and the visit of the emperor to detail Chinese history, politics and its isolationist position in relation to the West at the time, as well as Chinese customs. This strays close at times to schooling, but manages to stay on the right side of the fiction/faction divide and provides nice context. The characterisation is nicely done, especially Li Du, Hamza the Arab storyteller, and Lady Chen, the magistrate’s consort. In terms of the plot, the tale is a little slow and staid for the first two thirds, with some nice moments and the narrative occasionally enlivened by the stories told by Hamza. In the latter third, it shifts gear, with a double denouement that elevates the whole book – there’s a particularly nice and satisfying ‘aha moment’ when all the careful plotting clunked suddenly into place and the cleverness of what seemed a relatively pedestrian mystery becomes clear. Overall, an entertaining tale with an interesting lead character and setting.

1 comment:

George said...

I enjoyed Jade Dragon Mountain when I read it back in 2015. I liked the mystery and the Chinese culture.