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The Secrets of Jin-Shei
Alma Alexander
HarperSanFrancisco, 502 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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ISFDB Bibliography: Alma Alexander
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SF Site Review: Changer of Days

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Tai is just a child when she first accompanies her mother, a palace seamstress, to the Summer Palace, the luxurious mountain retreat where the ladies of the Imperial Court go to escape the summer heat of the capital city of Linh-an. A chance encounter in a courtyard brings Tai to the attention of Antian, the First Princess, heir to the throne of the Empire of Syai. Unexpected warmth blossoms between the two girls, so different in station and destiny, and Antian offers Tai the precious gift of jin-shei: a vow of friendship that can be made only between women, binding them to a lifelong sisterhood that commands more loyalty even than the blood ties of family.

Little does Tai know that her joyous acceptance of this vow will bind her to another promise as well -- one that, in the aftermath of tragedy, will alter the course of an empire. Across the years that follow, this promise, and Tai's original jin-shei vow, shape the lives of eight women and those who love them: Liudan, Empress in her sister's stead, whose fierce pride seeds a disastrous obsession; Yuet, healer, whose lie helps Liudan gain her throne; Khaelin, scholar, whose desire for secret knowledge snares her in dark servitude to a malevolent power; Nhia, sage, whose purity of spirit is coveted by that same power; Qiaan, adopted daughter of a palace guard, whose ambition makes her the pawn of Liudan's enemies; Tammary, gypsy halfbreed, whose heritage holds an explosive secret that could bring down an Empire; Xaforn, extraordinary warrior, ready to give her life for her jin-shei sisters; and Tai herself, artist and poet, whose original gift of friendship spun the first ties of jin-shei between them all -- a bond that can be honored or exploited or even abused, but never broken.

Set in an exotic imaginary China, The Secrets of Jin-Shei stands on the borderline between fantasy and commercial women's fiction. There's dark magic and alchemy, shapeshifters and golems, spirit journeys and a quest for immortality; but the central story is the women's lives, irrevocably shaped by the shifts and stresses and triumphs and tragedies of their sworn sisterhood. Unlike some writers who incorporate fantasy elements into mainstream fiction, Alexander is familiar with the tropes of the genre (under another name, she's the author of the well-received epic fantasy Changer of Days, which I reviewed here last year), and the book's fantasy elements aren't just window dressing or awkward add-ons, but integrally woven into the larger tale of female relationships. It's a novel that should appeal as much to fantasy readers as to mainstream readers who normally steer clear of speculative fiction.

Things start off somewhat slowly, as Alexander takes time to lay the groundwork: introducing her cast of protagonists, who are first seen as children, and building a picture of Syai's complex culture, with its centuries of history, its court life rigidly circumscribed by ancient custom, and its multifaceted religious traditions. The pace speeds and the atmosphere darkens as the women move toward adulthood, and the ties between them, rendered ever more complex and ambiguous by their individual characters and life choices, are tested both by outside events and by their own flaws and failings. Liudan's deep insecurity, as well as the challenges she faces as Empress, drive her to cruelly exploit the bonds of jin-shei, tearing the sisters apart even as Tai, the nurturer, fights to hold them together. In the end, each woman is forced to terrible sacrifice in the name of the jin-shei vow she honors above all else -- and yet in those painful ties of sisterhood, the women also find their greatest strength. It's a nuanced treatment of the contradictory faces of friendship, which can be giving and demanding, nurturing and destructive, selfless and self-serving, all at the same time -- and of how love, finally, can survive even the most devastating of injuries.

The book belongs to its women; the men, by contrast, are supporting players. Men do hold important roles in the sisters' lives -- Tai's husband, Tammary's royal lover, the powerful King of the Beggars, the dark mage Lihui -- but by and large they remain peripheral to the action, and even the magnetic and seductive Lihui, upon whom most of the supernatural events center, doesn't compare in interest and complexity to the female characters. Some readers may feel this as a lack, but others may not mind -- this is the story of jin-shei, after all, which can exist only between women. Vivid and involving, The Secrets of Jin-Shei is both an exotic journey into the imagination, and a graceful exploration of the heart.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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