This historical mystery, set in Imperial China in the late 1700s, is an absolute delight. It must be incredibly tough as an author to write a book like this – not only do you have to get the culture and history right, but you also have to create realistic characters and a compelling mystery. Debut novelist Elsa Hart takes all these threads – and a few more – and deftly weaves them into an excellent novel. This is a mesmerizing, riveting mystery - one of those novels where you read the last page, close the book, and sigh contentedly as if you just ate an incredibly satisfying meal.
The novel centers around Li Du, a disgraced former librarian, driven from his position in the Imperial library in the Forbidden City and exiled to wander the countryside. He arrives in a rural district at the foot of a mountain range, surprised to find the entire city frantically preparing for the arrival of the Emperor due to a solar eclipse that is set to happen in just a few days. A distant cousin of Li Du, now a local official, asks the librarian to look into a matter of inconvenience – a Jesuit priest, who is an expert in matters of science and astronomy, is found dead.
Li Du is now a bit of a reluctant detective as he investigates the possible murder. Suspects include European traders who are looking to expand their financial empire within the ancient empire, ambitious government officials who are political rivals of the Emperor, and old servants of the previous Imperial regime who have long memories. The clock is ticking, as the celebration – and the Emperor's arrival - is looming. Li Du is helped along by a rotund Muslim storyteller, who acts as his assistant and foil, and counters the librarian’s philosophy and history with stories of love, passion, and human nature.
Jade Dragon Mountain masterfully ties all of these threads together into a lyrical, compelling whole, studded with historical details and elegant descriptions of China’s traditions, personalities, and culture. With Hart's brilliant feel for setting, you can read this strictly as historical fiction. Or you can read this as a traditional mystery – there’s a great scene as Li Du gathers all the suspects in one room and goes through the motives and opportunities of each character, just like a British police inspector would do in a Victorian-era mystery. This wonderful novel will appeal to a broad range of readers.