"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Secrets of Jin-Shei

TITLE: The Secrets of Jin-Shei
AUTHOR: Alma Alexander

Disclaimer: This is a book I normally wouldn't have picked up. I decided to read it because I've "met" Alma online and have been trying to read books by authors I meet online. I've read a couple of mysteries and a science fiction book for that reason. There's an awkward feeling when reading books by people I sort of know. If I don't like them, how do I review them? With care. With Alma's book, I have no worries.

Set in a place not unlike China of the past, with some mysticism thrown in in the form of working alchemy. Jin-Shei is a special friendship of women, binding them as close as or closer than sisters. The characters here form jin-shei bonds in girlhood and are a mixed lot, from warrior to princess/empress, poet, healer, scholar/counselor, and so on. One connects to the other who connects to the other, drawing them all into a jin-shei circle, communicating in the written language reserved for women, committed to protecting and defending each other. Favors asked for under jin-shei must be honored and as these young women learn, always have consequences.

The book started slowly, introducing the main characters, slowly but poetically weaving the web that draws them all together and before I realized what was happening, I was sucked in. I came to care deeply about these girls who grow into young womanhood. At times, things seem to flow too easily, as if the author was orchestrating events, and I started to think the book was lacking substance beyond the beautifully drawn setting and well-rounded characters. But by mid-book, I saw that those earlier events that so easily fell into place had purpose and the second half of the book deals with the consequences of jin-shei, the ethics of one's actions, the repercussions that affect more than could be planned or expected. Hard lessons are learned, and without giving away the fate of these women, those lessons sometimes demand the highest price paid. The thing that resonated the most with me was how one woman's action, one woman's request upon the bond of jin-shei could affect them all.

The alchemy, the quest for immortality, the sage who is evil at his core, the metaphysics and philosophy that rule the land of Syai give the book the feel of magical realism as I understand it. This isn't a book fully set in the concrete realm, and that mysticism is what, for me, lifted this book into my top reads for the year. That and the unbreakable bonds of jin-shei. Anyone who has or has had a close friendship with someone who seems to know your very thoughts and you hers should be able to relate to these characters and their collected story. I usually don't care much if I can relate to characters or not, but a part of me was there with them, felt their joy, shared their pain.

As much as I loved this book, I would be remiss in not mentioning a few annoying typos in the trade pb I read. A missing "not," tapetries instead of tapestries, and the like. They were jarring when I stumbled upon them, but not nearly enough to throw me out of the story.

Now I need to see if I can find Alma's other books.