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Fleeing Russia and rampaging Bolsheviks, a count and his son set up shop as aristotrainers in 1918 Shanghai, a city with plenty of ethnopolitical problems of its own.

Despite plenty of adjustments for today’s sensibilities and political correctness (it really was a dashed hard life for the serfs, and those coolies with their night soil—well!), old-fashioned adventure novelist Bull (the Africa-set Devil’s Oasis, 2001, etc.) can’t hide his fondness for the tsarist upper-crust, their lawn parties, their lawn dresses, their oneness with horses, their flamboyant indebtedness, and their preservation of swashbuckling, which figures heavily throughout. Young swordsman Alexander Karlov, whose semiresolved adventures suggest the opening of a new series, is at the center of things here, failing to defend his dreamy reformist mum or his twin sister Katia against brutal Leninist aristocrat eliminator Viktor Polyak who has tracked down their eastbound train, strangled mum, and absconded with sis, stopping only to crush Alexander’s leg in a door-squish maneuver before taking it on the lam. Nursed by faithful retainers and loyal White soldiers, the banged-up young Karlov limps into Shanghai with plenty of bad news for his nearly broke but still dashing father. The Karlovs are just the most recent arrivals in a flood of tsarist loyalists and revolutionary losers starting over again in the great international port. After shedding a solemn tear for the late countess, Count Karlov opens a line of credit, rents an unused opium warehouse, and sets up a riding and swordfighting shop. Young Alexander, when not helping with the new business, rescues and befriends a Chinese madam and strikes sparks with a pretty young Californian who is soft on the Soviets and about to get entangled with evil Viktor Polyak, now dragging his net along the Huangpo. Alexander must have vengeance.

Not terribly tense, and there’s more than a whiff of prewar Hollywood in the stagy dialogue. Maybe a sequel will pick up steam.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-7867-1314-3
Page count: 400pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2003


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