The novel begins in Nancheng, China in 1266 and is the second instalment of a trilogy, although it works fine as a standalone story. The previous novel in the series is called Taming Poison Dragons (reviewed in HNR, Aug. 2010, p.22). Poor humble Dr Shih is called to the sickbed of the son and heir of an important official. The complexity of Chinese politics and customs are already evident, as it is clear that many would have preferred for the child to die, thus paving the way for an alternative heir. Meanwhile Shih’s identical twin brother Guang is busy braving the wrath of the Mongol hordes by rescuing his father from behind enemy lines. For this honourable deed, he is made Commander of Artillery and must try everything to maintain resistance and preserve Nancheng from the Mongol invasion.
Against a backdrop of war, violence and political machinations, we follow the personal and private fortunes of the two brothers on their different paths. Dr Shih’s life has been complicated by the unwanted and unexpected gift of a beautiful concubine. His wife is less than thrilled, but his brother struggles to resist the concubine’s charms. All the characters are well-drawn and develop throughout the novel with various twists and turns. The author’s knowledge of and love for this region and era are clear, and the reader is definitely immersed in the atmosphere and culture of the time. I recommend this to anyone interested in China and also anyone who feels like reading an interesting and well- written tale of love, betrayal, war and difficult decisions.