Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
Imagine a parallel world where ancient magic and what is described as the magic of mechanics collide, where Lady Naosuke’s Foretellings of The One Who Will Change are seen as dire warnings by a deeply conservative society; then place all this in the Isles of Nippon, or Japan to you and me, in a place we know as Nagasaki but in this other world is called the City of Jade, governed by a wise samurai named Okada with the help of a gem of great psychic power called the Eye of Jade. Then you write an epic about what happens within a single twenty-four-hour period. It is exhausting.
This story is largely written in the words spoken by the characters. There is little descriptive narrative, leaving the reader to pick up the wider meanings by implication. It’s a bit like real life and not what a reader might normally expect. This takes a bit of adjustment so the story doesn’t really start until the black ship turns up in Chapter Seven.
The appearance of a black ship reminded this reviewer of the Black Freighter in The Threepenny Opera, written by Berthold Brecht and starring the seductive Lotte Lenya as Pirate Jenny. Hoopla! Brecht was fun but this tale is far, far better so lie back and enjoy.
Just before the black ship invades his port, Okada has demonstrated his vision of a new, open, trading Japan to the citizens of Jade and Foreigner’s Town where outsiders are required to dwell. This latter is a clear reference to our Japan in the early nineteenth century. To successfully achieve such an outcome Okada deploys his own samurai to execute a coup de main against the black sashed samurai of the purity police, commanded by the odious Oatha. Okada hopes that these actions will strengthen resistance to the magical Lord of the North against whom the Shogun has deployed the Imperial army in the land we know as Hokkaido to the north. Things there are not going very well despite psychic support from the discrete female aspects of Japan under the gentle discipline of Mother Zander.
This delicately balanced political scenario is violated by the arrival of the black ship. The consequential ripples or should one really say, tsunami devastates Jade and overthrows Okada. The tale is largely told through the actions of Emmanuel John Kinross, also known as Man, a young exile from the Empire of Albion bought up by Okada as his ward. He has friends in Okada’s two daughters, Joah and Oki, whilst Joshi, the son of Fujiwara, the emperor’s agent in Jade, is his close friend and sparring partner. Then there is a young European singer, The Voice from Afar whose magical powers are of a great assistance to Man.
It would be grotesquely unfair to describe the plot other than to say it is fast moving with a dynamic which is both extensive and exhausting. Each character is allowed to develop themselves within the narrative, defining their objectives through what they say and do. This adds to the rich tapestry which sucks the reader into this parallel universe. Yet subtle implications become apparent that this may not be a parallel universe but a future, distant time.
This is a robust tale of good versus evil or multiple evils working in tandem. There is suspicion, fear, treachery, extreme violence and the deployment of magic as a psychic dimension of nature rather than the unique property of wizards. First rate fantasy!