Tuesday, February 16, 2021

SCMP Review of Tales of Ming Courtesans

I had the privilege of being interviewed by the incredible Annemarie Evans in November, and am very thankful for her nice write-up on my novel Tales of Ming Courtesans for the SCMP. The article has been published today!
Although it is fictional, Poon meticulously researched the era, and her work is rich in its descriptions of the food, architecture, clothing, music, poetry, cultural references and calligraphy of the period. For those new to Ming dynasty courtesan culture, the poetry and constrained Confucian lives of both men and women of the era, hers is a gentle and descriptive introduction.
They (Liu Rushi, Chen Yuanyuan & Li Xiangjun) were central to China's cultural and literary life, and Poon was keen to give these women a voice so they would not be forever remembered as minor characters in historical narratives written by men. 
She writes about the perilous nature of the women’s existence: dependent on the whims of the households they were sold into, while trying to make sure their lovers did not come under too much pressure from their own families and wives.
Paintings exist of all three courtesans, and their stories have featured in televised and literary accounts. Now, Poon has offered an alternative, and perhaps more authentic, picture of their lives.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The World of Chinese Review of Tales of Ming Courtesans

Having your historical novel reviewed in a popular cultural magazine is already quite a privilege. To see the review written thoughtfully by a well-known historian well versed in Chinese History is absolutely humbling. I owe a debt of thanks to Jeremiah Jenne the wonderful reviewer and The World of Chinese magazine.
Here's a quote from the review:-
"Though the super courtesan team-up probably never existed, it’s still fun to imagine the historical possibilities if it had—such is the liberating fun of reading a novelist who is also a historian. With characters as rich as these and a writer as expressive as Poon, who needs CGI, anyway?"

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Book Review - "The Burning God" by R. F. Kuang


First off, I must say that Rebecca Kuang is a brilliant writer. It takes someone with serious talent to pull off this very complicated history-fantasy plot with myriads of characters. She seemed to have done it effortlessly. She has my admiration.

This final volume The Burning God of The Poppy War trilogy takes readers through another roller-coaster of endless bloodsheds and gore and hatred. Rin has evolved into a recalcitrant and power-obsessed general who is becoming more and more cold-blooded in her blind strife for revenge against domestic foes (Vaisra Yin and Nezha Yin and their Republic) and foreign ones (Hesperians) alike.

In her desperation, she leads her Southern Army to trek through rough terrain all the way to Mount Tianshan to seek help from Riga the shaman tyrant (the long trek parallels Mao Zedong’s famous long march), but the quest is fruitless. Undaunted, Rin heads straight to Nezha’s military base in his hometown Arlong to challenge his protector the Dragon god. She wins the battle, forcing Nezha to flee to Speer Island. She also sees Nezha as an involuntary puppet at Hesperia’s beck and call. But she finds no loyalty from the Arlong people. Paranoia begins to set in. She heads south to her own hometown Tikany in search for support, but what awaits her is a war-weary and destitute populace. She decides on a face-off with Nezha on Speer Island.

The entire series explores themes of obsession with and illusion of power, racism, class bigotry, cultural conflicts and values gap between nations. The wide range seems a tad ambitious.

I found this third and final volume a bit tedious at times, especially when reading repetitive expressions of melodramatic emotions and reactions of the protagonist. I’ve always had an aversion to series, because the narrative often tends to drag unnecessarily just to fill pages (which translates into higher profit for publishers). This is also true of this trilogy, notwithstanding plot complexities and colorful characters, especially when each of the three books is over 600 pages long. I would definitely have liked it better if the story was condensed into just two volumes.

Specifically, the long trek to Mount Tianshan in this final volume, which is chronologically inaccurate from history’s perspective anyway, seems to have been inserted as a page filler in an afterthought, rather than developed organically from the narrative flow.

I’m giving this Book #3 of the trilogy 3.4 stars, rounded down.

Overall, the average rating for the whole series is 4.13 stars.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Bookish Asia Review of Tales of Ming Courtesans

This morning I woke up to this beautiful review on Bookish Asia's website. Bookish Asia is an acclaimed professional reviewer of China- and Taiwan-related books. It's an honor to be reviewed by this expert.


Saturday, December 12, 2020

What Inspired Me to Write Tales of Ming Courtesans

On the kind invitation of online magazine Women Writers, Women's Books, I wrote this post for their website last week.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Book Review - "The Dragon Republic" by R. F. Kuang


This is sequel #2 in The Poppy War trilogy. It was as compelling as the first novel. The writing is lush and scenes are graphically presented. Rin’s internal torment and physical pain felt so real on the page!

The plot thickens as the Nikan Empire is stricken by the aftermath of the Mugenese invasion and the power struggles between the northern Warlords led by the Empress and the southern Warlords headed by the Dragon Republic leader Vaisra, Nezha’s father.

We see Rin guilt-ridden over her using the fire power of the Phoenix vindictively to annihilate the whole Mugenese island. While at a loss as to what to do next, Rin gets reunited with Kitay in the city under the control of the pirate queen Moag. Nezha appears at this juncture and convinces them both to join forces with the Dragon Republic to resist the imminent attack mounted by the Empress and her allies. Rin learns that Vaisra intends to enlist the help of Hesperia, the blue-eyed foreign nation, but she remains wary of the latter’s true intentions.

Meanwhile, her fire power is lost due to a god’s blockage. A fierce naval battle between the two sides breaks out at Lake Boyang. The Empress’s side has the help of the wind-commanding shaman Feylen, which gives her the edge. The plot then branches off to tell the history of enmity between the steppe shamans and the Nikan imperial rulers. By chance, with the help of a steppe shaman, Rin’s fire power is restored and enhanced by a spiritual bond forged with Kitay. They are ready to protect the Dragon Republic, but in the end find they have backed the wrong side. Unexpected perfidy forces Rin to assume a life-changing role in the civil war.

Here are some passages that I found resonating:

The sheer arrogance, Rin thought. It must be nice, possessing all the power, so you could approach geopolitics like a chess game, popping in curiously to observe which countries deserved your aid and which didn’t.

It’s not about who you are, it’s about how they see you. And once you’re mud in this country, you’re always mud.

‘Those devils are going to destroy our world. The Hesperians have a singular vision for the future, and we are not in it.’

The Nikara had been fighting among themselves for a millennium. Were they going to stop just because they could vote for their rulers? And who was going to vote for those rulers? People like Auntie Fang?

He could spout all the ideology he wanted, but she knew better. The Nikara were never going to rule themselves, not peacefully, because there was no such thing as a Nikara at all.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounding up. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Book Review - "Descendant of the Crane" by Joan He

The book blurb describes this novel as "Chinese-inspired fantasy", but frankly, I would have liked for the cultural settings to relate to a real Chinese historical period and/or some real Chinese historical figures. Most of the time, I felt like reading contemporary fiction (because of the Western flavor of the dialogues and behaviors) set in a weird make-believe medieval world.

The story is about a (supposedly) Chinese princess who vows to find the murderer of her father but then finds herself entangled in a web of lies and betrayals during the investigation. When she's caught in a dilemma between upholding her subjects' trust and seeking redress for one particular group of oppressed victims (the soothes, or fortune-tellers), which situation is further complicated by the prospect of war with a neighboring state, she realizes that her ideals are useless and something has to give.

The first third of the novel moves at glacial pace, but picks up considerably about mid-way. But I was unable to feel connection with any of the characters and found the writing a bit disjointed.

I'm giving this novel 3 stars.