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The Secrets of Jin-Shei
Alma Alexander
HarperCollins, 496 pages

The Secrets of Jin-Shei
Alma Alexander
Alma Alexander was born in Yugoslavia, grew up in Africa, and now lives in the state of Washington. She is the author of four previous novels that have been published exclusively in Australia and New Zealand.

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SF Site Review:The Secrets of Jin-Shei
SF Site Review: Changer of Days

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A review by Donna McMahon

Although The Secrets of Jin-Shei is a Fantasy novel with a fictionalized medieval setting, you won't find it on the SF/F shelves because it's being marketed as mainstream "chick lit." For this reason, many genre readers may miss the book, which would be a shame.

With so many Fantasy novels using European-derived settings and mythology, ancient China makes a refreshing change. Alexander's landscape is tantalizingly exotic and yet familiar enough to feel very real, and she uses magic sparingly, in ways appropriate to her society. This and the intricate detail she has put into her backdrop makes The Secrets of Jin-Shei feel very much like historical fiction.

At the core of the story is the concept of jin shei -- a special oath of lifelong friendship and sisterhood sworn between women. The women also share their own secret written language, Jin-ashu, which is taught and used by women in all walks of life. These bonds create vital links between women who live in an otherwise stratified and rigidly controlled society where women wield little direct power.

The novel centres around Tai, daughter of one of the Imperial Court's seamstresses, who exchanges a jin shei vow with Princess Antian. When an earthquake destroys the Summer Palace, Antian's dying wish is for Tai to take care of her difficult and unpopular younger sister, Liudan, who is now successor to the throne. Tai later swears jin shei with Liudan, drawing together a group of young women in a web of jin shei bonds that will influence their lives and the future of the Empire.

The jin shei sisters range in rank from Khailin, daughter of the Court Chronicler, who dreads being married and drawn into formal Court life because she will no longer be free to pursue her studies, to Xaforn, a foundling raised by the Palace Guard, who is driven to be the youngest and best inductee into the Imperial Corps. Others include Qiaan, daughter of a Guard captain; Nhia, a poor girl with a withered leg whose unusual wisdom and devotion begin to draw attention at Temple; and Yuet, an apprentice healer.

Eight protagonists (plus all their associated secondary characters) is many, and even though they are all well drawn and distinctive people, I found myself losing track from time to time. Also, the author appears to set out without a clear direction and flounder around for a long time in search of a plot. Eventually the story gels around an evil alchemist and his attempts to manipulate the Empire, but it does feel a little perfunctory, as if added as an afterthought.

Nonetheless, this is an absorbing and fascinating read, well written, atmospheric and with moments of wrenching intensity. It's also a novel that because of its complexity and large cast, will probably merit several enjoyable re-reads. And I hope that guys aren't scared off by the flowers on the cover because this is no sappy romance -- it's a compelling tale of Palace intrigue and a ruthless quest for immortality.

Copyright © 2006 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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