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Book Author: Elsa Hart

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN by Elsa Hart: Book Review

A mystery set in 18th-century Tibet and China.  What could be better?

Li Du is a brilliant man, a former librarian in China’s Forbidden City.  However, because Li Du was accused of being a friend to traitors of the emperor, he was exiled from the city and has spent the last five years traveling through the country.  He’s just arrived in the remote city of Dayan, close to the dangerous Tibetan border, anxious to continue his travels unimpeded.  First, however, he must get permission from the magistrate of the prefecture to proceed.

Magistrate Tulishen, granted honorary Manchu status by the emperor in recognition of his service to the empire, is ready to give Li Du the necessary papers.  But then things go awry due to a murder, missing valuables, and the imminent visit of the emperor, known as The Kangxi.

At the time Jade Dragon Mountain takes place, the emperor has many titles and is revered as a divine being, believed to have been chosen by the gods to rule the world.  It is thought by his subjects that nothing the Son of the True Dragon does could be unjust or incorrect, and there lies the reason that Tulishen needs Li Du to stay in Dayan through the royal visit.  The emperor, as his predecessors had done, has invited Jesuit priests from Europe to enter his kingdom, the only foreigners allowed to live in China.  It is not because he is interested in Christianity but because they bring scientific knowledge with them, knowledge that The Kangxi can use to impress the people of the country.

The Jesuits have predicted an eclipse of the sun on the day after the emperor is due to arrive.  The court has passed this forecast on to the citizens of the city as being the emperor’s own, so it must take place at the exact moment The Kangxi has said it would.  But murder and theft have thrown Magistrate Tulishen’s plans for an extravagant eclipse ceremony into chaos, so reluctantly acknowledging Li Du’s formidable intelligence and superior knowledge of the Jesuits, their scientific knowledge, and their religion, the magistrate compels him to stay and make certain that all goes smoothly.  Then Father Pieter is found dead.  The magistrate quickly declares it is a natural death owing to the priest’s advanced age, but Li Du is not so certain.

Jade Dragon Mountain has a wonderful cast of characters, each with his or her own agenda and secrets.  In addition to Li Du and Tulishen, there is the beautiful Lady Chen, the magistrate’s courtesan who wields a great deal of power in the palace; the elderly priest Pieter, whose knowledge of astronomy had made him eager to see the eclipse; Hamza, a traveling storyteller with an endless supply of tales; Brother Martin, another priest who has an impressive knowledge of botany but a surprising dearth of information about the funeral rites of his church; Nicolas Gray, an Englishman who has arrived in Dayan with a valuable, if secret, cargo; and Jia Huan, the secretary of the prefecture.

There is a wonderful sense of history and place in Jade Dragon Mountain, an amazing amount of knowledge beautifully expressed.  At the end of the novel is a question and answer section in which the author explains her interest in this area of China and how she came to write the book.  Her explanation is as fascinating as the novel itself.

You can read more about Elsa Hart at this web site.

You can check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.