It’s funny how easy it is to break a habit and how hard it is to get it back. I’ve been a regular, consistent reader for years, but I had not opened a book for several months until earlier this week after an upsetting personal period.
I had the idea to do a bumper ‘round-up’ type review of new and notable historical fiction back in January: several books I found in my survey of historical fiction last year had interested me and made their way into a tremendous pile of books I received for Christmas), and I spotted a handful of upcoming releases in the genre. But after a long bookless pause I finally cracked a spine again last week (not literally of course: firstly that’s a terrible thing to do; secondly my Kindle wouldn’t like it); so here is the long overdue round-up, in chronological order.
She Who Became The Sun – Shelley Parker-Chan
I maintain that action-driven historical fiction is a perfect genre to popularise China-focused fiction in the West and broaden understanding of China and Chinese heritage people; it’s still a big market, with direct parallels in the Chinese literary tradition and popular culture, and neat adjacencies with fantasy, YA and other genres to explore. Australian Shelly Parker-Chan seems to have had a similar thought, but (unlike me) has actually done something about it with She Who Became The Sun. We start in southern Henan in 1345, where a young, hungry peasant girl witnesses the awful death of her father and brother. She assumes her brother’s identity (and fate) and joins a monastery – as Zhu Chongba. History fans will know where this is going: it’s the Red Turban rebellions against the Yuan, only the future Zhu Yuanzhang / Hongwu Emperor is… a girl. This is quite the bold central conceit, and a creative and involving way of introducing queer and fantasy themes.
There are some wonderful passages – Parker-Chan is a very gifted writer. The publicity compares it to Mulan (of course) but also Circe and the Song of Achilles, which is smart and apt, and the writing is comfortably in Madeline Miller’s league. It also checks most of the genre beats I expect and enjoy – exciting battles, a fascinating central protagonist, dastardly villains, even some (unexpectedly) graphic but well-handled sex. It’s tough and unpredictable, like the tricksy Chongba. Chongba’s self-actualisation at the end of the book is spectacular, with unforgettable final images of her golden radiance in her victory in Yingtian (Nanjing), ‘transformed into a living being of fire’. I also liked how it is closely Parker-Chan blends themes of Chinese history and culture into the narrative, but doesn’t treat them as strange concepts that need to be explained to the reader, just simple matters of the world in which it is set. It’s better world-building, and it’s more respectful of both the reader and the subject. She does use the (near-)literal translations of insults (“fuck eighteen generations of that bastard’s dog ancestors!”) – it’s a personal preference, but I find that jarring when most of the dialogue and prose is modern.
So I was impressed, but I finished it asking myself why I didn’t enjoy the book more. I found the narrative quite bumpy, and some of the secondary characters underdeveloped. The shifting of narrative focus around some key characters loses some momentum (it’s interesting to read in this illuminating interview that there were originally even more perspectives), and while the writing is very strong, particularly in the detailed evocations of places, sights and smells, there are times when I wanted a bit less. Some of the action scenes and the more emotional two-hander scenes are a bit stodgy, for instance. It looks like there is a series planned – this ends in 1356 and there’s a lot more story to tell – and I’m certainly signed up for more.
She Who Became The Sun is released in the UK on 22 July by Mantle.
There’s a casual throwaway reference in She Who Became The Sun, a description of a character as ‘a useless rice bucket who spends his days eating bread and sugar, and his nights with Yangzhou prostitutes.’ The Hongwu Emperor, after taking power, made it a serious offence for scholar-officials to sleep with prostitutes, but by the end of the Ming the cultivated courtesan-poet was a well-established romantic figure for the literati. So to fast forward three centuries…
Tales of Ming Courtesans – Alice Poon
‘Courtesan’ usually has me bristling – like ‘harem’ and ‘concubine’ it is too often by Western writers far from its original meaning as way of exoticising and justifying their own fantasies. No such worries with Alice Poon. Tales of Ming Courtesans is a beautifully written, thoughtful, and tender book, based on the lives of the Liu Rushi, Chen Yuanyuan and Li Xiangjun. The fall of the Ming is one of the periods of Chinese history I am most fascinated by, and I knew Chen’s story well (or, at least, the mythos of her romance with Wu Sangui) but Poon brings a fresh, graceful approach to these figures.
We start in the last years of the Ming in the aforementioned ‘degenerate’ Yangzhou, a city that would soon suffer one of the most appalling massacres in Chinese history, before the narrative moves to Qinhuai in Nanjing. The degeneracy isn’t the focus though – the tone is set in the opening lines, with Liu Rushi addressing her daughter. The three women may all be the subject of famous romances, but this is a novel about female relationships and sisterhood. They suffer, love and grow together as sworn sisters (not a complete fabrication: Liu and Chen were close friends), not to mention relationships with other women. The men aren’t incidental, but there’s no doubt who the story is about.
The approach to sex, the courtesans’ trade, is neither coy nor gratuitous. While there is a romantic aura about the women as cultured ‘enchantresses’, Poon doesn’t shy from the pitiable parts of life that are instrumental in building them – the ‘thin horse breeders’, the beatings, the forced abortions – but doesn’t revel in them either.
Poon’s research is impeccable (I always like to see an academically minded Further Reading list). A piece of advice I once absorbed from a writing class was that, while it is important to convey ‘sights and smells’, you shouldn’t feel obliged to describe meals, outfits, buildings and so on in detail – you’ll worry too much about getting the detail right and ignore the story. Poon manages to do both. The sense of place here is exceptional. Streets, food, buildings, trees, flowers, make-up styles and, of course, West Lake are conveyed in detail without feeling like a regurgitation of research.
For the next two years, I was to live in the shelter of this procurer house, sharing with five other girls an allotteed loft chamber fitted with a single lattice window on the east side. Against the north wall were lined six bamboo pallets stuffed with straw. The glued-on oil paper on the window lattice had several slits through which wintry gusts could brazenly whip.
Tales of Ming Courtesans is a very skilful work, interweaving three well-known stories in a rich and rewarding setting. It is poignant and melodramatic in the best sense of that word, full of emotion, compassion, flashes of shock and tear-stained confessions.
Jade Dragon Mountain – Elsa Hart
Elsa Hart’s Jade Dragon Mountain is historical crime in the tradition of Judge Dee but close in style to the modern historical crime works by the likes of CJ Sansom which seem to dominate the market at the moment. Reading it gave me the excuse to revisit a couple of Judge Dees, which is always diverting. I don’t believe Jade Dragon Mountain was ever published here in the UK – at least that’s my excuse for not having heard of Hart’s Li Du series before – but it was originally released in the US in 2015.
It’s an enjoyable mystery, with a memorable murder and well-plotted and elegant solution, an interesting detective (Li Du is a librarian who has deliberately stepped back from life in the Imperial Service) and lots of good sleuthing. The setting is distinctive too – it is 1707 on the fringes of the Qing empire, and Li is investigating the murder of a Jesuit while the days are counting down to the arrival of the Kangxi Emperor on a southern tour. Dayan (modern Lijiang) is a multicultural setting, only recently pacified by the Qing dynasty, with a really well conveyed frontier town feel. There are Han magistrates, local ethnic minorities, travellers from across south and central Asia, not to mention Jesuits, Dominicans, English travellers and businessmen. Hart wrote the book in Lijiang and it shows – Dayan is well imagined.
The problem for me was a classic trap of historical fiction – the world needs to be impeccably researched to sustain the cogency of the setting, which does place a huge burden on the writer above and beyond good plotting and characterisation. I am by no means an expert in this period of history, and Hart’s descriptions of Dayan and the southern tour, and the Jesuit characters, seemed convincing to me. But a few small errors on home territory let the doubt creep in that all the research sound – for instance, a reference to Dream of the Red Chamber, which was not written until later in the 18th century; and referring to an English character as Sir Gray (‘Sir’ is only followed by first names, never surnames). I don’t like to nitpick but it’s important in sustaining the world.
As it happens – and spoiler alert – I just didn’t buy the ‘Sir Gray’ character. He is a representative of the East India Company, in Dayan to present a gift to the Emperor: a tellurion, cunningly hiding an explosive device to assassinate him. Why would a Company representative attempt to assassinate the Chinese Emperor? It’s never convincingly explained. The East India Company was doubtlessly hugely powerful in 1707 and seeking to open up trade with China, but it wasn’t yet the expansive empire-building megacorporation that it would become in the late 18th century. Tea was only just becoming popular in England and the Company would surely have been focused on securing access to ports, not destabilising the whole of China by killing the Emperor.
China – Edward Rutherfurd
Edward Rutherfurd is a bestselling historical fiction author who writes long books with grand sweep and short names: Russka, London, New York, Paris. The only one of his already on my shelves is The Forest; it’s a mark of his scale of ambition that his scope has increased from the New Forest to now China. I’m reminded of Mark Kermode’s criticism of Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia – ‘what, all of it…?’ Yes indeed, this is China – all of it.
This is the story of China from 1839-1908, from the First Opium War to the death of Empress Dowager Cixi, from multiple British and Chinese viewpoints. There’s certainly a particular interest in British interactions and influences on China in this period, and while the British characters are fleshed out in detail Rutherfurd does seek to give similar attention to the Chinese characters. There’s something quite Dickensian about the characters’ names: our lead Brit is an everyman opium trader literally called John Trader (‘not only at cricket, but in life generally, he played with a straight bat’) and his friend Charlie Farley, and a recurring missionary character is Cecil Whiteparish (the Chinese characters are much more vanilla – Mr Liu, Mr Ma, an official called Shi-Rong, a woman called Mei-Ling).
The usual criticism of Rutherfurd is that his epic works are essentially vehicles for his own research, and that’s true here. The narrative writing is tight and propulsive and the plotting is intricately planned, but it’s all very slick and dispassionate and, like other epic works, manages to feel both immeasurably vast and yet barely skims the surface of events. None of the characters talk or act like real human beings and it’s hard to develop deep connections with them. The British characters do think ripe, rum things like ‘So this was China. Fearsome. Picturesque. Mysterious… What were they thinking? He had no idea’ and the Chinese characters have ‘high Mongol cheekbones, no doubt like those of Genghis Khan’ and say things like ‘Look at that! The mighty Yellow River in all its majesty and power. The soul of our ancient land. How lucky we are to live here’ or ‘That is an impertinence to the Celestial Kingdom, Excellency’. The romances in particular are cool to the point of frigidity: John Trader and his Macanese lover Marissa ‘made passionate love and he told her he didn’t want to go…and she was sad’; later, his marriage (not to Marissa) is ‘a most successful event, the bride was lovely’.
That’s all OK in a sense, the characters’ purpose here is to whisk us from event to event via little cultural vignettes. It does feel quick tickboxy – the plot is engineered to take us to gratuitous but interesting places (West Lake, Jingdezhen, Guilin, Shaolin); to incorporate notable figures (Jardine and Matheson, Elgin, Backhouse, Lin Zexu, Cixi herself); and to delve into interesting aspects of Chinese culture (footbinding, calligraphy, Li Bai, oracle bones, the examinations, the banner system, flower boats, the sewage system of the Forbidden City and much, much more…). This isn’t to denigrate Rutherfurd’s research, which is clearly impressive (it gets a Julia Lovell seal of approval, I note), but it feels more like he is aiming to impress and inform, not entertain. At its best, the length and scope of China allows space to explore some themes really well (the passage about the eunuch Lacquer Nail’s early life is excellent); at its worst it reads like a textbook. The first time we see Beijing, for instance, we are given a multi-paragraph history of the city that would suffice as a short encyclopaedia article (‘Jiang knew that the people who called themselves the Han – his people – had built a walled city on the site three thousand years ago…’ and so on for ten paragraphs). I wonder if Rutherfurd’s editor was a little overawed.
The whole book is at its best putting you in the thick of events with a clear narrative viewpoint – the sacking of Yuanmingyuan, for instance – and weakest when the plot lulls and we are left to focus on the characters’ lives. It’s not entirely evenly balanced either – I felt short-changed by the sections on the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, but to be fair I can never get enough about the Taiping.
China is fine and its sheer heft and scope is nothing if not impressive – I’d recommend it to someone who wanted to learn more about Chinese history and had plenty of time to burn. But if this is your type of thing, Flashman and the Dragon covers the same ground much better, much quicker, and is much more fun.
China is released in the UK on 13 May by Hodder & Stoughton
Boxers and Saints – Gene Luen Yang
A much, much more compelling take on the Boxer Rebellion comes from Gene Leun Yang’s 2013 two-parter. I’m not a big graphic novel reader, but also not (I hope) a snob about them – that’s my excuse for not getting round to this sooner. Graphic novel certainly feels an effective medium for the story at hand – the beigey palette is a better tool for conveying the monotony and oppressiveness of life in rural Shandong than a ten paragraph social history, and, more importantly, makes the flashes of colour and intricate detail in the fantastical elements and violent outbursts even more awe-inspiring. The composition, in particular the use of space and colour, is delicately frameable without overcoming the narrative.
The two books each give us the different interacting perspectives of two people from the same village: a boy, little Bao, who is radicalised into joining the Boxers and, channelling the spirit of Qin Shihuang, marches on Beijing, storming trains, executing foreigners and converts, burning the Hanlin Library; and a girl, Four-girl, who converts to Christianity with the name Vibiana, guided by the spirit of Joan of Arc.
I can’t think of anything I’ve read or seen that is as successful at giving both sides of a conflict, and the Boxer Rebellion is singularly well suited to that treatment as we are so used to the simple, heroic Western-focused 55 Days at Peking narrative. Characters that appear in both books come across as villainous in one, sympathetic in the other, and yet they are drawn identically – a wonderful way of showing the complexities of personalities, past experiences and perspectives. Each book feels like a polemic for its side, and while each character is full of doubts and regrets (particularly little Bao, who commits horrendous atrocities in the name of his cause) they are never not compelling. There are plenty of lighter moments and neat touches (the foreigners all speaking in incomprehensible squiggles), and it is genuinely moving. I cared about both Four-girl and little Bao. It really brings the Rebellion to life; now if Hollywood would drop the superheroes for a moment, this is an adaptation I would love to see.
Diamond Hill – Kit Fan
I dithered on including this 80s Hong Kong-set book here, but convinced myself to do it. After all, the great skill in historical fiction isn’t just setting stories in the past, but presenting a time where the norms, circumstances, assumptions and attitudes of the characters are notably different from the reader’s; and building empathy despite (or, even better, because of) that. And while it’s only a generation ago, the changes Hong Kong has undergone since the 80s more than qualify it for that. And besides, I really enjoyed this when I read it several months ago and didn’t get round to giving it its own review, so it only seems fair.
The noirish narrative follows a recovering heroin addict living in a Diamond Hill nunnery and his relationship with a novice Quartz, a teenage girl drug kingpin called Boss and her mother, known as Audrey Hepburn. The setting is the real star of the piece though, and the vehicle through which Fan explores his themes of disenfranchisement, change and identity. Diamond Hill in eastern Kowloon is an entrancing setting: in 1987 it was still home to shanties and economically sustained by drug dealers but living under the shadows of a glamorous past (as the home of the movie studio which launched Bruce Lee’s career), an uncertain post-Black Monday future of rapacious redevelopers and Handover, and the literal flightpath of Kai Tak Airport.
‘One doesn’t need to be naked to look naked. You have been here long enough to know that. Because there are no secrets in Diamond Hill, everything is secretive. We are in a state of transition here. In fact, everyone in Hong Kong is obsessed with one single date: 1 July 1997. The whole city is in a state of violent change, moving from one regime we are used to loathing, to another one we are loath to get used to.’
It’s an engrossing read – thoughtful, darkly funny, elegantly written, reminiscent of Lawrence Osborne. It balances a nihilistic, uncertain tendency with a strangely uplifting humanity. And the copious Cantonese profanity is worth the cover price alone.
Diamond Hill was released in the UK on 4 May 2021 by World Editions
A Heart Divided: Legends of the Condor Heroes 4 – Jin Yong, tr Gigi Chang and Shelly Bryant
And finally, a word about the book that helped me enjoy reading again. I wrote about the third volume here but the series is now complete, and it’s as brilliant as ever. It’s a stonking achievement, the best wuxia translation I’ve come across. It’s still not the ‘Chinese Lord of the Rings’ though, sorry.