Stars: 4 out of 5.
I am a fan of everything Asian, so when was asked to review a book set in alternative nineteen century China, I said, “Heck yeah!”. And for the most part, I loved the story. I have a few minor gripes that I will voice at the end of this review, but for the major part, this is a book I would recommend to my friends.
The Good Land is in trouble – the Bamboo Banner rebellion originated in the South and is slowly moving North towards the Heart of the World and the seat of the Empire. They claim that the young Emperor is dead, and that the Empress Mother hides that fact and rules in his name. And the natural disasters befalling the Good Land in the last years seem to corroborate their claim that the Eleventh Dynasty has lost the Mandate of Heaven – drought, then floods, then unusually cold winters threaten famine on a large portion of the Empire. Then an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude flattens cities and villages across the Good Land, killing millions and leaving even more homeless. The very foundations of the Empire are shaking, even though those living in the Inner Palace don’t seem to notice it.
But scholars know that all those disasters are the portents of a bigger event – the opening of the Portal of Worlds, a mysterious carving in the cliffs of the great mountain range that guards the northern border of the Good Land. It is said that once a millennium, that carving becomes a real door. It is unclear what comes out of it, but every time it brings a time of great upheaval and suffering and the change of the ruling dynasty…
There isn’t one single protagonist in this book. We follow the stories of several different characters instead. They come from different backgrounds and have different goals and aspirations.
We have several Gray Brothers, the Order officially in charge of all the funerary rites in the Good Land… and unofficially, the only sanctioned guild of assassins and spies in the Empire. Brother Silky is in charge of making a wealthy merchant even wealthier, even though he is also trying to advance a more personal cause of making a name for himself and founding his own family. Brother Butterfly Sword doesn’t want anything to do with assassinations, but ends up on a mission in the most dangerous place in the entire Empire – the Inner Palace itself.
We have several members of the Bamboo Banner, from the lowest of henchmen to the nephew of Bamboo himself.
And finally, we have the Firstborn and his small retinue, who are travelling towards the Portal of Worlds in the hopes that maybe, for the first time in thousands of years, the Firstborn will live long enough to see it open…
I loved all the characters, the good ones, the bad ones, the in-between ones. Because they were exactly like people around me – not entirely good or bad, but both at different times. They were flawed and petty, ambitious and self-serving, but capable of compassion and sacrifice at times as well. I am glad that at least some of them managed to accomplish their dreams in this time of turmoil, and I am sad that others didn’t survive the upheaval. This says a lot about the author’s writing skill that he managed to keep me invested in so many different characters, each with their own small story, all of which wove into one big tapestry that is this book. I enjoyed every minute I spent with them, and even though the book is 389 pages long, I never felt like it dragged.
In fact, I would have loved it to be a bit longer, which brings me to my first gripe with this book – the ending feels rushed and anticlimactic for the build-up we had during the rest of the story. I won’t put any details to avoid spoilers, but it basically goes like this: Portal opens. A certain character goes through. The rebels and the Imperial army don’t even meet in confrontation, even though they’ve been chasing each other for the best part of the story. Everybody goes home. The End.
This ending left more questions than it gave answers. Who was the Firstborn? Why was he stuck in the Fourth World for so long? It’s implied that it was a punishment, but for what? And why is that punishment suddenly over now instead of say a thousand years ago or a thousand years later? We get no answer to those questions.
My second gripe is with Bamboo, the leader of the Bamboo Banner. What was his ultimate goal, apart from toppling the existing dynasty? He had to know that an army of addicts would never stand a chance against trained soldiers with guns and cannons. Or was he so crazy that he didn’t care? Was all this just the ravings of a delusional megalomaniac or was he guided by greater forces? In any case, it seems suspicious that he would manage to gather such a big following in the first place, because he didn’t strike me as a very charismatic leader. I think that this whole storyline would have benefited from a bit more focus.
But despite those minor details, I really enjoyed this story and I would recommend it to my friends. If you are tired of the usual Western-based worlds and want to try something new and unique, this is definitely a book for you.
PS: I received an advanced reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.