A Boston merchant is falsely accused of murdering a government official in 18th-century China in Flanders’ (The Girl from Recoleta and Other Stories of Love, 2014, etc.) intricate sequel to The Republic of Virtue (2014).
Businessman Calvin Tarkington’s plans for a happy life after his return to America from France unravel when his fiancee suddenly dies. Grief-stricken, he decides to expand his trade and takes a monthslong voyage to China. Although the Middle Kingdom allows some foreigners to do business in Macao, it remains largely closed off to Westerners. Many Chinese regard the “barbarians,” with their strange customs and religion, with suspicion, and the introduction of opium into the market has further eroded their trust for “foreign devils.” Scholarly Calvin is curious about the mysterious empire and spends most of his journey learning the language. He’s a quick study, and soon after his arrival, a fellow American asks him to help him pressure a Chinese trader into repaying a loan. Meanwhile, Commissioner Sun, the emperor’s representative, is investigating the killing of a suspected opium dealer. He stumbles upon the confrontation with the trader and takes a liking to Calvin. However, their budding friendship is cut short in a moment of violence. Calvin, accused of murder, is soon swept up in a murky tug of war between corrupt forces trying to hide their misdeeds and honorable officials seeking to clean house. He finds an unlikely ally in Gen. Daitun, who takes Calvin to Peking to defend his innocence. For the most part, Flanders paints the Chinese and their culture with nuance, avoiding the common trap of portraying Calvin as a persecuted, enlightened white savior. His meticulous eye for detail is on display the moment the Liberty docks in Macao; he portrays the land of tea and porcelain as vibrant and complex—a country struggling to balance tradition with innovation. The author does recycle some of The Republic of Virtue’s plot points, including a traitorous countryman and a bold, ahead-of-her-time love interest, but the dressing is so different, the setting so rich, and Calvin’s cultural immersion so absorbing that readers will hardly complain.
A sequel that stands firmly on its own, brimming with political intrigue and historical drama.