Mandarin by Robert Elegant

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This is marketed as being the second in a trilogy, but it’s actually got nothing to do with Manchu, apart from the fact that they’re both written by Robert Elegant and set in China. This one covers the Taiping Rebellion, and is set mainly in the “foreign” quarter of Shanghai, where Saul Haleevie, who left Baghdad due to anti-Jewish sentiment and moved, via Bombay/Mumbai, to China, is in partnership with Aisek Lee, a Chinese man.  Most of the Haleevies’ acquaintances are from Britain, the United States, or various European countries.  The Empress Yehenala/Cixi/Orchid, many miles away in Peking/Beijing, also features prominently.

Aisek falls foul of the Chinese authorities and is unjustly sentenced to exile, after which Saul and his wife Sarah adopt Aisek’s sons, Aaron and David. Meanwhile, the Haleevies are desperate to find a suitable husband for their daughter, the oddly-named Fronah, whom they’re concerned is becoming too involved both with Chinese affairs and with the Western community, and also attracting the interest of an American, Gabriel Hyde.  They manage to pair Fronah up with Lionel Henriques, a well-to-do (so they think) and well-connected (so they hope) Englishman who conveniently happens to be Jewish.  Rather unfortunately for all concerned, it turns out that Lionel is a paedophile and an opium addict, who was packed off to China by his horrified family to avoid scandal in London.  Opium, OK, but did we have to have paedophilia in the book?  Surely some other sort of vice, one which wasn’t quite so sickening, would have sufficed for the storyline.

David becomes a prominent Mandarin, whilst Lionel and Aaron join the Taiping rebels. Lionel is killed, but no-one tells Fronah because they’re worried it’ll lead to a recurrence of the depression and anorexia from which she suffered when he first left, and then, ten years later, there’s a rather unconvincing farce in which no-one tells anyone else what they know and everyone gets the wrong idea, before Fronah and Gabriel finally get together and, hopefully, live happily ever after.

That makes it sound like a romance or a family saga, which it isn’t. There are a lot of scenes showing the utter horror of the Taiping Rebellion, as experienced by Lionel and David, the effects on everyone of the fighting in and around Shanghai, Fronah’s attempts to help the children who are suffering as a result of it, and the sacking and pillaging of Peking by Western forces.  There are also a lot of scenes showing the Empress Yehenala, presenting her in a much more positive light than she’s often been shown in historically.   It’s a big book and there’s a lot going on, with the action moving between the main characters in Shanghai, Lionel and Aaron with the rebels, and Yehenala at court.

It does get a bit confused sometimes, especially in the rather silly who-knows-what scenes leading up to the end. Also, the author gets his cuisines confused, but I suppose that doesn’t really affect the story!   But there’s a lot in it that’s well worth reading.

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