Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99 (c2015)
At the end of “Jade Dragon Mountain,” Elsa Hart writes about the circumstances that led to her writing the book. She was living in China at the time with her husband, who had a project based there. She lived in a remote village and it inspired the setting for the first Li Du mystery. Hart’s background is a great story in and of itself.
I missed this series when it first began in 2015, but I plan on catching up ASAP.
Li Du is a fairly young librarian in exile in early 18th century China. Hart touches on some of the convoluted political machinations that led to Li’s exile from Beijing. On the surface it appears he was innocent of sedition but had the misfortune to have rebellious acquaintances. All was not revealed in this first book, so I hope one of the other books contains more information. It doesn’t matter now, because the point is Li is an ex-librarian, a full-time observer of the world, a scholar, a wanderer, and an inquisitive soul.
Reluctantly, Li finds himself in Dayan in a remote corner of the Chinese empire. His cousin is the magistrate there. He is much older than Li, resentful that Li received more attention because he showed intellectual promise, smug in Li’s fallen status, and more than happy to sign the papers allowing Li to move on to other areas. Then a fellow traveler succumbs to poison, and Li forces his cousin to recognize that Jesuit priest Pieter van Dalen was murdered. That’s the last thing the magistrate wants to hear because the emperor is scheduled to visit.
After a year of traveling, the emperor is drawing close to Dayan. He has come to cause the sun to disappear. We would call that an eclipse, but the emperor wants his subjects to recognize his divinity by commanding the sun to disappear, in a heavily ritualized and dramatic fashion, of course. (And then reappear.) Li must solve the murder before the emperor’s arrival. (And preferably be long gone by then.)
It is not a very well-kept secret that the Jesuits have brought their science along with their religion to China. It is they who provide the emperor with the calendar of celestial events that he uses to “control” the skies. Could someone have resented the Jesuits' influence on the emperor and taken it out on van Dalen, an astronomer? Joining forces with a traveling storyteller, Hamza, Li delicately investigates, mostly to satisfy his sense of right and wrong.
“Jade Dragon Mountain” is well-written with a strong sense of place. Hart’s descriptions are evocative, her presentation of court customs beguiling, and her plotting satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it certainly would have earned an MBTB star in 2015!