Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $16.99 (c2016)
I don’t usually read one book after another in a series, but Elsa Hart’s Li Du series captivated me. Because I missed the debut when it came out, I’ve been playing catch-up. The book after “The White Mirror, “The City of Ink,” was just released, and I hope to get to that soon.
Li Du is the enigmatic Chinese Sherlock Holmes-like character created by Elsa Hart in her debut novel, “Jade Dragon Mountain.” “The White Mirror,” the follow-up to that book, takes place eight months later. Li Du finds himself trekking up the mountains of Tibet, continuing his quest to find himself. Then an unforeseen snowfall traps him and the death of a monk intrigues him.
In the early 1700s, China was a world force, a mysterious destination for Europeans bent on both economic and religious conquest. The Jesuits brought science to the Chinese court. At home, they engendered envy and enmity by other Catholic sects.
Li Du learned Latin from the Jesuits in court, because Li was an up-and-comer in his youth, destined for administrative greatness in the Emperor’s empire. Because of a mentor’s arrest for treason, Li became disgraced by association and was exiled. In “Jade Dragon Mountain,” he solved a crime and was rewarded by reinstatement into the good graces of the Emperor. Still, Li Du has decided to continue his trek over rural paths and into remote valleys.
Author Hart has a great touch with providing a historical context and a fresh sort of story. Here she presents her version of a locked room mystery when Li Du is trapped by a heavy snowfall in a Tibetan manor — actually more a farm holding rather than what the word “manor” brings to mind — with disparate characters, including a recent acquaintance, storyteller Hamza, along with the muleteers and guides who are taking them to Lhasa (he hopes), the hardworking lord of the manor, the lord’s family (also hardworking), and various monks, manor hands, eccentric neighbors, and fellow travelers.
The first thing Li Du and his traveling party realize is that the monk who looks from a distance to be welcoming them on the bridge to the manor is instead very, very dead. On his chest is drawn a blue and white circle. It is later identified to be a stylized white mirror, drawn to ward off evil. What drove the monk to kill himself? Or could someone have murdered him?
As Hart uncovers layers of plot, she also warms up the land to melt the snow. Li Du must find out who is behind the nefarious deeds in the remote valley before the routes are clear and the villain or villains scatter.
Once again, Hart deftly describes a culture and rugged landscape which is very different than that found in the U.S., but with characters whose foibles and fancies are more than recognizable. And once again, Hart has produced a wonderful book.