Jade Dragon Mountain is the first novel of Elsa Hart, and I hope to read more of her novels in the future. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the story of Li Du, a librarian of the Forbidden City in China exiled for his friendship with traitors.
In the early 18th Century, after almost five years of travel as a destitute scholar, Li Du walks into the city of Dayan in the hinterlands of southwestern China. He must get papers authorizing his travel through a pass over Jade Dragon Mountain in order to leave China and explore lands to the west.
Li Du’s biggest challenge as he enters the city is to have an audience with the Magistrate of Dayan, his cousin who is ashamed of Li Du for the disgrace the exile brought to the family. Li Du finds the city crowded with people from all over the region preparing for a festival in honor of the Emperor of China who will visit Dayan in six more days.
Lisa Hart has described the setting of Li Du’s story with details that immerse the reader in the exciting turmoil of people anticipating the event of their lifetime in a rural district of China. Every scene is like a Chinese painting with lyrical prose similar to the brushstrokes of master artisans of the era. The reader is never distracted by the beautiful descriptions of the settings of scenes because they are essential to the story involving the interactions of the characters.
The main characters are diverse, interesting, and well-developed. Li Du, an intelligent and observant man, is the focus of interaction with Jesuit Priests, East India Trading Company representatives, courtesans, imposters, entertainers, spies, librarians, outsiders, and Dynasty royalty. Mystery, pageantry, and intrigue are themes evenly distributed between divisions of days before the Emperor’s visit. I think the ending was a bit rushed with some add-on pages to give an incomplete closure to the novel. But, I believe the purpose of these pages is to set the stage for future adventures of Li Du (I hope!).
This is an excellent novel, very entertaining and informative. I put it in my category of favorite recent novels of China: Old Town by Lin Zhe; The Long March Home by Zoe S. Roy; and even Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan.