Drugs, gems, money, power, honor and lives are at stake in the contentious Kokang region of Southeast Asia.
Matt Erickson is living a reasonably successful life as a Hong Kong businessman in the early 1980s when he receives a telegram that upends his life: His brother Luke, a Marine, has gone missing in Burma, and a body that might be his has been found. Matt, also a Marine, resolves to find Luke. The challenges during his search include a dicey political situation with warring armed factions financed by drug and gem trades, as well as difficult-to-penetrate terrain. At the same time, Florence Chen—the woman Matt loves—is being tapped to serve as a clan chief for Kokang, the ethnic-Chinese area of Burma that jealously guards its global financial interests—including heroin. How will her clan responsibilities affect her relationship with Matt? And Ty Matson, leading the mission from which he’d ejected Luke for killing another member, is investigating a Burmese gem mine that might actually be extracting uranium. Though in different ways Matt, Ty, and Florence can be said to achieve their goals, it’s always at great personal cost. Wittenborn (Center for Asian & Pacific Studies/San Diego State University) clearly knows his subject, making the tangled political situation interesting and understandable. Every location comes alive, whether it’s crowded Hong Kong, depressing Mandalay, the steaming jungle or a backcountry trading post: “Ty smelled the fusty odor of burnt tobacco, mingled with the scent from a mélange of herbs and the sting of diesel fuel. Shouts of vendors hawking their Chinese wares—Zebra toothpaste, Seagull batteries, Tiger Head flashlights, Flying Horse blankets—were overheard above the roar of passing lorries….Lepers with no faces and emaciated drug addicts without legs scurried around on little wheeled stools, pulling at coat sleeves.” Nitty-gritty details, such as the portrayal of a gem auction—as much gambling as buying—also fascinate. Strong female characters add interest as well. Matt’s romantic difficulties are less compelling than the emphasis given them, but Wittenborn handles his complicated plot well.
Excitement, romance, local color, powerful women and authentic cultural details make this novel a well-balanced alternative to the typical techno-heavy thriller.