The Secrets of Jin-shei

The Secrets of Jin-shei: A NovelThe Secrets of Jin-shei: A Novel by Alma Alexander

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.

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John Carter of Mars Lives!

I thought John Carter was a hoot!  I’ve read most of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, and own 10 of his books from three series.  I’m no expert, but I think that the John Carter movie caught the Barsoom zeitgeist really well, and brought the visuals firmly into the 21st century.  Playing ERB as the nephew works out very, very well in relation to the original, and Mars itself works out to be a really strong character in the movie.  While the story doesn’t hold true to any one of the Barsoom books, in another way it hold true to all of them.  Critics can hate this movie all they want (haters gotta hate).  I think anybody who ever read the Barsoom books will find something to treasure here.

I took my family to watch this film, and every one of us liked it.  Even my wife, who found huge nits when she watched Casablanca, loved this. I draw that comparison because Casablanca has spawned so many imitations that My Bride thought the original film was full of clichés.  John Carter of Mars started just that size of revolution among F&SF fans around the world, and the stuff Edgar Rice Burroughs dreamed up has been almost endlessly regurgitated for B movies and B pulp fiction, but ERB created it, and Disney brought that oeuvre boldly to life.  I’m just pleased as punch, and my family had a great night at the movies.  If this show hasn’t left your village, go and watch it.

Visually it’s as real in its stark reds and severe clime as Avatar is in its blues and verdant forests, and John Carter doesn’t require that humanity export evil exploitation from America in order to fight it.  Instead it gives us a hero who finds reasons for hope and love in extreme conditions, and doesn’t then belabor that.  It squeezes a love story into a few looks and some shared peril, and unfolds an entire alien, impossible, amazing and fun world before our eyes.  And I loved that dog.

My only real nit was the red-men of Mars.  In my mental picture they’re a bold red, not a standard human coloration.  I think giving them a native American cast of color but not foregrounding Native American actors gives the movie a mildly off ambiance – it looks too much like 1950s Western Movie red-face.  They should have gone Cadillac Red.

Bill

Demon Underground

Demon Underground by Susan Wright

Should probably be considered the second section of one story. Starts up the moment the first volume ended, and develops the ongoing action. The heroine (Allay) is a demon, but what are demons? They aren’t all evil – in point of fact, the heroine seems to consider them to be worse than they actually behave. I’m uncertain if that is unreliable narration, or if the author wants them to be more evil than she’s actually writing them.

As an unreliable narrator, Allay is very interesting. She seems to be falling in love with a very old demon, but the question is out there, is she in love, or is he manipulating her into being addicted to him?

I also think it’s interesting that the demons use that label on themselves. Are there angels? Are demons another species?

The story is very personality driven. Allay, her offspring Bliss, Ram and his offspring Mystify are emotionally fleshed out, and that seems more important to Allay than what is actually happening in the world.

The story has been examining what the world does as demons, who are immortal and can look any way they please, are discovered to be real. I’m sure it intends to continue down that path. I’ll be reading it when it does.

The weakest point to the books, as far as I am concerned, is that the writing doesn’t carry me along, waiting for the next thing. I keep going back, but I’m very able to put the books down for about two-thirds of each book, then I get swept up in the end. I’d like to be dragged along for more of the book.

The loneliness of the long-distance panda

The “Loneliness of the Long-distance Panda”, written by my friend Jacey Bedford, is in the current Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science. It’s a quirky piece and I had a lot of fun reading it. It’s available here. It isn’t a long tale, and I can’t think of a way to review it without giving away spoilers that you would not thank me for. Suffice it to say that it’s extraordinarily well written, fun in a dark way, and will be over much to soon. Takes about five minutes to read – longer to think about.