City of Ink by Elsa Hart
I read this book while preparing for a book discussion of Jade Dragon Mountain, the first of three historical mysteries featuring exiled librarian Li Du and storyteller Hamza. The second book is The White Mirror. All three stories are set in early 18th century China, with very different settings. With City of Ink, Li Du is working as a secretary in Beijing for Chief Inspector Sun. The city is abuzz with preparations for the imperial examinations, which Li Du passed many years ago. Thousands of students who have passed two earlier levels of exams are trying to study, pick out the best ink and brushes, and preparing for several very intense days of exams which only a few hundred will pass. Li Du and Inspector Sun investigate a double murder at a tile factory, but a quick and tidy solution is preferred by the magistrate rather than an in-depth inquiry. In this gated city, Li Du and Hamza get caught outside their neighborhood after curfew, and have to find lodging for the night. Returning to Water Moon Temple, Li Du discovers that his room has been searched. Tension eases when Li Du travels outside the city to teach calligraphy to the grandchildren of his late mentor Shu, whose name he is still trying to clear. Lady Chen of Jade Dragon Mountain is now living in Beijing, and may have useful information for Hamza and Li Du. If you enjoy intricately plotted mysteries (or historical fiction) with vividly detailed settings, I think you’ll really enjoy this outstanding mystery series.
The White Mirror by Elsa Hart
Stranded by snow at the Tibetan manor of Dhosa, former imperial librarian Li Du, storyteller Hamza, and the rest of their caravan learn the stories of Dhosa’s family, meet several other visitors, and visit a nearby temple, where Dhamo, an elderly monk, painted religious art. On the bridge leading to the manor, the caravan discovered Dhamo’s body, a possible suicide, with the image of a white mirror painted on his chest. A tax inspector, a spy, another artist, and a young monk are included in the large cast of characters. A clever puzzle, and the beautiful setting, complete with hot springs, a painted cave, and a stunning view of the Himalayas, will reward patient readers in the sequel to Jade Dragon Mountain.
Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart
This is an outstanding mystery debut, set in southwest China in 1708. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du visits Dayan, near the Tibetan border, and reports to the local magistrate, his cousin Tulishen. Li Du learns that the emperor is coming to Dayan for a festival to celebrate a solar eclipse, and the preparations are considerable, including building a new pagoda. A few foreign visitors are in Dayan, including two Jesuits and a representative of the East India Company. When an astronomer dies suddenly, Li Du is useful as a translator and wants to investigate the death, although the magistrate would rather cover it up. The mystery is clever, but I especially enjoyed the variety of well-drawn characters, and the richly detailed setting. I hope Li Du will have many more adventures, and I think readers of mysteries or historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy reading this book.
Red Chamber, by Pauline Chen
18th Century Beijing, China comes to life in this retelling of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. Much of the book is set at the Rongguo mansion, owned by the Jia family. Lin Daiyu comes from the south of China to live with her uncle, cousins, and grandmother for a season. She meets her cousin Baoyu, the pampered son of the household, who is studying for exams, and Baoyu’s cousin Baochai, who befriends Daiyu. Baochai and Daiyu are both fond of Baoyu. Back in Beijing after caring for her father, Daiyu finds the atmosphere greatly changed, affected by family secrets, affairs, and marriage arrangements. Food, clothing, and daily life are all richly described, but some of the characters are not well developed, especially four young adult grandchildren of the family. The emperor’s death brings tragedy to the family, and some of the characters are disgraced, while others die from illness. This is not an especially happy book, but it is vividly written and memorable. Readers looking to immerse themselves in a different time and place will find this book hard to put down.