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The Secrets of Jin-shei by Alma Alexander
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Jul 15, 2012

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Review published in the New Zealand Herald, 20 March 2004

The Secrets of Jin-Shei
by Alma Alexander
(HarperCollins, $31.99)

Reviewed by Philippa Jamieson

Ostensibly an historical novel, set in medieval China, The Secrets of Jin-Shei also has elements of fantasy and magic – think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Seven young women become inextricably bound together through the jin-shei sisterhood, pledging an allegiance to one another that can override family loyalties, professional oaths or personal values. This sisterhood has its basis in historical reality, as does the secret women's script they use, based on the Chinese nushu script used only by women.
This improbable group of teenage girls from varying backgrounds becomes a powerful force in the imaginary land of Syai. Their mothers include a seamstress, a washerwoman, and a concubine of the Emperor, but the girls in the jin-shei circle are smart and ambitious, and grow up to be a sage, an alchemist, a warrior, a poet, a healer, an Empress, practicing a kind of feminism that may not authentic to the period, but makes for a feisty set of characters.
Some characters jump off the page, others, although strongly rendered, remain rather two-dimensional – the Empress for example, always glittering with jewels and an unquenchable thirst for power, and Lihui, a dastardly evil sorcerer through and through. And unfortunately the author didn't convince me that all the sisters actually like each other enough to carry out the jin-shei vow to its extremes, as they do increasingly as the story progresses.
Alma Alexander is the pen-name of Alma A Hromic, a Yugoslavian-born writer who spent several years in New Zealand, but now lives in the USA. She has written memoir, short fiction, and fantasy. In The Secrets of Jin-Shei, she's at her best when writing riveting action scenes, or evoking the period with rich language and imaginative descriptions. Less explanation of the characters' thoughts and motivations, and more interpretation left to the reader would have helped to keep my attention.
The novel takes time to unfold as the author sets the scene and gradually introduces the characters, their lives inexorably becoming intertwined. Seeing so many characters from an omniscient point of view was sometimes dizzying.
Themes stack up in a smorgasbord: divided loyalties and betrayal; birthright, identity and heritage; and of course plain old good versus evil. The plot reels from event to event; some storylines build up organically, others arise seemingly out of the blue. The nearly 500 page novel would have been tightened by more editing.
Readers who enjoy historical novels and can suspend belief a little will savour this complex saga.
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