Author: Mingmei Yip
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / China / Shanghai / Gangsters / Love Affairs / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Kensington (6/25/2013)
Source: Book Promotion Services
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young assassin returns to Shanghai to find an old lover, her child, and settle old scores with dangerous gangsters.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do.
First line: Three months ago, I was singing to loud applause in a Shanghai nightclub; a few days later, I became unexpectedly wealthy.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like fiction set in China and/or heroines who are unapologetically dangerous and sexy.
Why did I get this book?: Last year I read Yip's Skeleton Women; this is the sequel.
Review: While technically the sequel to Skeleton Women, which I read last year, Nine Fold Heaven works as a standalone novel. In essence, it's about a woman's quest to find her child, the father of her child, and some measure of safety.
Set in the 1930s, the story is narrated by Camilla, a former gangster's assassin and much lauded nightclub singer. Once a star, she fell from glory after a botched assassination attempt when she fell in love with her target's son and had a child with him. She betrayed her boss, stole from her target, and fled Shanghai in disgrace, wanted by both the police and all the gangs. Her old music teacher had lied to her and said her son was stillborn, but Camilla learned he was alive. Going between Hong Kong and Shanghai, Camilla revisits her past -- including her numerous lovers -- as she navigates her present, including a new, powerful lover. She struggles to remain hidden for fear for her life while her natural skills -- her singing and her beauty -- draws attention toward her once again.
Camilla is a hard heroine to like, although not surprisingly given her upbringing and childhood. A 'skeleton woman' -- a gangster's girl and assassin who turns men and women into skeletons -- Camilla was trained as a child to seduce and to kill. Only 20 in this book, she's shockingly worldly and has the bold arrogance of one not used to failing but she has the ability to reflect on herself and her decisions. (Refreshingly, she doesn't wallow in regret, angst, or remorse, which makes her hard, perhaps, to empathize with, but I found this to be accurate to Camilla's upbringing.)
Yip employs a very simple, almost story-like narrative style that feels deceptively plain (Chapter One has been shared online for this tour for those curious about the style). Camilla refers to poetry and classic Chinese literature as she tells her story, and the narrative is liberally peppered with quotes, which takes this rather grim story and gives it a fairy tale-like element.
Much of the plot is dependent on some seemingly improbable coincidences and a very zippy timeline, which normally would drive me crazy. But in Yip's hands, and through Camilla's eyes, there's a kind of formal aloofness to the unfolding action. Camilla isn't above bragging, but at the same time, she's not going to dwell on the grimy day-to-day details.
The historical feel to the story is thin, sadly, but I felt more a sense of Shanghai and Hong Kong in this book than in the previous novel.
I liked this one more than Skeleton Women, perhaps because Camilla's plight and adventure resonated more. As one refusing to love, Camilla is now a woman awash in love, struggling to do right by those she's impacted and affected, wanting her family because it is right.
As with Skeleton Women, I raced through this book -- there's non-stop action, sex, and intrigue -- and I'm interested in Yip's next offering. (Given the end of this book, not likely to be another story of Camilla's -- but I wouldn't mind a book about Camilla's mysterious friend Shadow.)