Part mystery, part exploration of a culture fading into history’s shadows, Hart’s novel is a fascinating, intelligent debut.
In 1708 China, imperial librarian Li Du is banished from Beijing for innocently consorting with traitors. Now an itinerant scholar—"It is not my habit to remain long in any city"—Li has come upon Dayan in China’s far southwest, where his cousin Tulishen is imperial magistrate. Li appears before Tulishen, as he's required to do, "to register my presence upon arrival in a new prefecture." Coincidentally, Emperor Kangxi is about to arrive in Dayan on a royal tour; with knowledge gleaned from Jesuit astronomers, he's planning to command an eclipse to appear in Dayan, a bit of theater meant to persuade restless citizens of his divinity. There will be a great festival, and foreigners such as Brother Pieter, a Jesuit scholar, and Sir Nicholas Gray, the English East India Company representative, will attend. Dayan becomes a pit of rivalries. Pieter’s murdered. Tulishen, ambitious for office in the Forbidden City and fearing embarrassment, demands Li find the killer. Hart has written an intriguing mystery but it’s the deft interweaving of Chinese culture—poetry, art, and even tea—into the tale that adds depth. Hart’s language regularly delights—a servant girl's "makeup gave her face a hard, kiln-fired delicacy"; the East India Company "whined at the door like a hungry dog, a frustrated brute who smelled meat but could not reach it." Hart tosses in tidbits about Ming and Qing rivalries and worries over Tibet’s Kham people while lacing the mystery with sleight-of-hand misdirections. Li finds the murderer and wanders off once more with another outlier, Hamza, a "storyteller who spins dark tales, who associates with bandit caravans," characters worthy of a sequel.
Think Agatha Christie writing Shogun—Hart’s captivating debut has solid cross-genre appeal.