Jade Dragon Mountain: A Mystery (Li Du Novels) by Elsa Hart
Early in the 17th century, the English were trying to get a foothold in India as traders with the visit of Thomas Roe to Jehangir’s court. In China, at around the same time, the Ming dynasty was getting replaced by the Qing dynasty. The world was changing, not just in terms of a dynastic change, but also in terms of Western religious and economic imperialism. Jesuits and Dominicans were wandering around China looking for converts. The English East India company was also looking for a way to gain foothold in the country. (The Virginia Company was already setting the template for destroying native civilizations in the America)
In Elsa Hart’s work of historical fiction set in this period, a Jesuit priest is found murdered in the town of Dayan near Tibet. The magistrate of the town does not want this incident to upset the celebrations that have been planned for Emperor Kangxi, who is visiting shortly. There are many suspects – the Dominicans, the trader from the Company, the library clerk, the first lady, the Tibetans and a wandering story teller — who have their own secrets. While the magistrate is happy to ignore the incident, his cousin Li Du is not. An imperial librarian and now an exile, he happened to be in the magistrate’s house when the murder happened and will not rest till the mystery is solved.
The book is interesting in the way any historical fiction is. It gives an introduction to an interesting phase of Chinese history. It brings out the transition from Ming to Qing very well and also the way the Tibetans are treated. The details in the story gives a good feel for Chinese culture and social norms. The story follows the three act structure very well, but the intensity of the transitions is timid. There is no violence, or torture or gruesome deaths, thus making it different from most other historical fiction. In a book market where historical fiction focuses mostly on the Western world, this book is a welcome change.