Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Elsa Hart, a Wonderful New Author Discovery

OK, perhaps I can't take credit for "discovering" Elsa Hart - Donna Leon and Louise Penny beat me to the punch - (http://www.elsahart.com/) but I'll bet I'm the first person to tell you more about her. I chose her debut novel strictly for the cover art and because I'm always on the look out for a book that will appeal to my friend Don who's enamored of all things Asian. Imagine this librarian's pleasure when I discovered that "Jade Dragon Mountain," is the first in a new series that features Li Du, a librarian and scholar, who investigates murders in 18th century China.

Product Details

Ms. Hart is an internationalist, born in Rome, raised in Moscow, and educated in the states, but she actually went to live in Lijiang, China, the city that once was Dayan, China, where the action takes place. It's 1708 and a wondrous honor is about to be bestowed upon the people of Dayan. The Emperor is making a year-long trek to the city which sits at the farthest reaches of the country bordering Tibet, to witness the total eclipse of the sun, a phenomenon that he has predicted as a show of his genius and superiority. No one needs to know that it's through the calculations of the Jesuit astronomers that the emperor comes by his knowledge.

Li Du has been banished from Beijing and from his position at the state library because of his association with men who have been accused of treason. His punishment is to wander the country indefinitely, registering as an offender in each town that he visits. He arrives in Dayan just as the city is gearing up for the Emperor's visit, registering with the magistrate, Tulishen, who happens to be a distant cousin.

 Though Li Du's exile brought shame upon his relatives, Tulishen, an insecure but ambitious man, decides to use Li Du for his language skills, offering an invitation to the grand festivities in exchange for the translation of any gossip that he might overhear. But before the night is over, another guest, a Jesuit priest, will be found dead in his room, and the success of the Emperor's celebration will be in jeopardy if the death isn't covered up quickly and neatly.

Readers will warm to Ms. Hart's book immediately, as it reflects her belief in the importance of language, words, knowledge, and libraries. So much more than a mystery, Hart's novel is a mesmerizing, atmospheric escape to a time and place not well known by most people. She uses historical details to full advantage, explaining the economic tug of war between China and the west that is still being played out today.

Another theme that propels the action is the dichotomy between religion and science. The Chinese cleverly allow the Jesuits in, not to adopt their religious beliefs but to absorb their scientific and mathematical discoveries. The fact that many nations vie for entry into China's closed society, and the lengths that they might go to in order to make it happen, are at the crux of this fascinating debut novel. Hurry up and get your copy now because the follow-up, "The White Mirror," is due out in September from Minotaur Books.