Jade Dragon Mountain is the debut mystery by Elsa Hart set in China in 1708 featuring the exiled librarian Li Du (available September 1, 2015).
Here are some of things I know about China: Ming vases, Mao Tse Tung, calligraphy, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and they put on a spectacular Olympic opening ceremony. Not much for a country with a more than 4,000-year history.
I learned a bit more by reading Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart. Most surprising for me was the fact that Jesuit priests not only visited the country, but played a big role in China. As observers, and in an attempt to win converts to the Catholic church, of course. But also as respected advisors to the Emperor. And some Jesuit priests play a role in the book as well.
The protagonist, Li Du, is a Chinese scholar from a good family. After distinguishing himself at his studies—often with Jesuits—he becomes the Emperor’s librarian. At the beginning of the story, in 1708, Li Du is in exile from the capital of Beijing. He wanders the country, using travel books as his guides. Having visited the tea jungles of the far southwest region of China, he comes to the town of Dayan. He applies to the magistrate of the region, his older cousin, for a place to stay.
Unfortunately for Li Du, he has arrived just days before the Emperor is due to arrive for the Spring Festival. The Emperor will command an eclipse of the sun in order to prove his power to the people of the far-flung province.
The Emperor of China had the power, according to ancient tradition, to predict astronomical phenomena. Displays of this power confirmed the Emperor’s divine legitimacy, and were taken very seriously. The more accurate the prediction, the more effective the demonstration. Members of the intellectual elite, of which Li Du and Tulishen numbered, were aware that for many years it had been the Jesuits at court who had provided the Emperor with a yearly calendar of astronomical events. Their calculations had proven reliable and accurate to the minute. Naturally, public acknowledgment of their role was forbidden, as it would tarnish the pageantry of the Emperor’s predictions.
And what better way to assert control over a notoriously unstable province than to impress its people with a spectacular festival and an eclipse of the sun? It had fallen to Tulishen to organize the unprecedented event in an area known throughout China only for its disease and barbarism. He would be blamed if the Emperor was disappointed.
Li Du and Tulishen are perfect examples of intelligence and integrity not always being valued over the willingness to just get along. Tulishen is ambitious—and may be smart in his own way—but he has no desire to investigate the death at his mansion, until Li Du points out that it could negatively affect the Emperor’s visit. Then the magistrate enlists the assistance of his disgraced librarian cousin to find the murderer.
One of the rules taught to aspiring writers is to involve all the senses. Hart does a beautiful job describing the people and places Li Du encounters. I could visualize the decorations and the tea services provided in the guest quarters. Smells, often forgotten by writers, are also used to place the reader inside the story with scents of incense and food. But smell is also an important part of the investigation. It is the sense of touch, however, that really immersed me in 18th Century China. The feel of the cover of a book, the texture of a leather purse and—especially—the immersion in a cloud on a mountaintop.
The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move, but rested his eyes on the soft, white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.
Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and thought he could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene. The next break in the cloud framed a waterfall, a still, silver column too distant for him to perceive its tumbling energy. That window closed, another opened, and he saw a tree. It was in the same place as the tall oak he had seen minutes earlier. Only this one was not hollow, but alive, its limbs and trunk whole and draped in garlands of lichen.
I often lose time when reading a good book. I can look up after what feels like a half hour to find the light has changed, my knees are stiff, and a few hours have passed. With this book, I not only lost that kind of time, but centuries dropped away and I was transported to another continent. One I have never seen in real life, but one that soon felt familiar.
This is Elsa Hart’s debut novel. Let’s hope she writes many more.
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Debbie Meldrum reads just about everything she can get her hands on. She was the short fiction editor for Apollo's Lyre and the Editor in Chief of the Pikes Peak Writers NewsMag. She's currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel.
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