Jade Dragon Mountain is a refreshing change from many of the other ARCs publishers had out at this year’s Book Expo America, too many of which suffered from A Game of Thrones ‘grim-is- in’ meme. Now, as much as I like AGOT (TV, really, not so much the books), I’ve had my fill of all these overly dark stories. Seriously. I actually stopped reading a book this summer—a rarity for me—when the author kept upping the characters’ suffering in ways irrelevant to the plot.
Luckily for me, Jade Dragon Mountain has none of that.
Debut author author Elsa Hart smartly gives her story a classic Agatha Christie feel. And setting the mystery in 18th century China only adds to the book’s exotic flair. Along the way, I’d often recall James Clavell’s brilliant Asia-focused novels, Shogun and Tai-Pan. To be sure, Jade Dragon Mountain isn’t as rich or as ambitious as those works, but I doubt Ms. Hart meant it to be.
What we get here is an engaging and wildly entertaining book with a great cast of three-dimensional characters, an exotic often mystical setting, and a feeling of timelessness that engages the reader right from the start.
The exiled and disgraced main character, former Beijing Librarian Li Du, is fascinating, intelligent, and easy to root for. I followed his investigation into the death of a foreigner, a Jesuit priest, with interest. Li Du relies on his wits and his exceptional, if incredibly cordial, questioning of suspects to solve the case. To up the ante, Li Du faces an unbending deadline in the first ever Imperial visit to this remote section of China, several likely suspects, and a village all too willing to muddy the waters through gossip.
If I had to find any flaw, it would be that some of the breadcrumbs Ms Hart leaves for the reader are a little too easy to spot. Fortunately, none of this detracts from the overall storytelling or reading experience.
In sum, Jade Dragon Mountain is a dazzling debut for Ms. Hart. I’ll look forward to her next book with interest. Jade Dragon Mountain is out in September 2015. Go get it.