My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sisters of the Soul: The Secrets of Jin-shei
Alma Hromick-Deckert has written at least fifteen books, substantial short fiction, lived and worked on four continents, and been a witness to worldwide change along the way. According to one of her web-sites, she was born in 1963 on the shores of the Danube in a country that no longer exists, received several degrees in South Africa, but then found it prudent to leave that land rather than be swept aside by militant forces for cultural change, and eventually settled in Bellingham, Washington. The Secrets of Jin-shei, published in 2004 under the name Alma Alexander, is her first American novel, published by Harper Collins as mainstream fiction. Unsurprisingly, considering her own history, Jin-shei examines the lives of a group of nine women who never quite feel as though they belong, and who share, unevenly, a vow that will shape their entire lives.
Jin-shei is interesting and beautiful from several perspectives. Although it has a focus character, Tai, it is truly an ensemble cast. Tai’s most critical actions occur at the beginning and end of the tale, while the body is given more to the activities of each of her Jin-shei sisters. The novel is presented largely in a multiple third person point of view. The writing style trends toward the American speculative fiction standard of “transparent” prose, yet has moments of truly beautiful language, and other moments of truly breathtaking beauty. It has a large cast of major characters, is set in Syai, an ancient Chinese kingdom that never existed and in which magic is real. Alexander begins Jin-shei with an epigraph – prefacing material from the Imperial poet Kato-Tai, in the year 28 of the Star Emperor. The selection frames the entire narrative and reveals that Tai outlived or lost all of her eight sisters of Jin-shei:
All women in Syai are given the gift of the secret vow, the promise that is everlasting, the bond that does not break. I shared my own life with a healer, an alchemist, a sage, a soldier, a gypsy, a rebel leader, a loving ghost, and an Empress who dreamed of immortality and nearly destroyed us all.
Each of the seven major parts of the book begins with a small epigraph quoting a fictional court poet from various Imperial reigns. The epigraphs, if put together, form one poem, which illustrates the ages of a woman, and become the framing notion for each part. The parts are named after notional stages of life within The Way. According to the text, the stages of life are: Liu, Lan, Xat, Qai, Ryu, Pau and Atu, which correspond poetically to the ages of a woman.
An amazing amount of thought and heart went into creating this book, and I loved it. I’ve read it several times, and even wrote a paper about it in graduate school. Now that I’m writing this shore review, I’ll probably have to go back and reread it again. I’ll laugh again, and almost certainly cry again. Some book just hit you that way.