Rutherfurd stumbles uncharacteristically in this tepid outing, his first set outside of a Western culture.
In 1839, John Trader comes to China from England, hoping to make his fortune in the opium trade. He arrives just as the First Opium War breaks out, and Rutherfurd spends long chapters detailing the British and Chinese military maneuvers and how these affect the Chinese and British economies and, consequently, Trader’s fortune. Along the way, Rutherfurd introduces a number of Chinese characters, including a pirate named Nio, and a eunuch in the emperor’s palace who goes by the pseudonym “Lacquer Nail” because he is the manicurist for the emperor’s favorite concubine. Rutherfurd follows the fortunes and misfortunes of his cast of characters for nearly seventy years, ending in 1902, just after the Boxer Rebellion.
With China’s long history, it makes sense that Rutherfurd would choose a relatively small time period, but seventy years is hardly a blink of an eye for Rutherfurd, whose previous works have spanned as many as two thousand years. Additionally, while much of the book is written from the point of view of Chinese characters, just as much, including the story’s climax, is told from the British characters’ point of view. Rutherfurd instead often shows the Chinese perspective via musings by oddly woke British characters, but these attempts lack power. And though the British characters’ storylines are neatly wound up by the end of the novel, many of the Chinese characters’ stories are left unresolved. As a result, this doesn’t feel much like a book about China at all but rather British imperialism.
Nonetheless, Rutherfurd’s historical detail is, as always, impeccable. Readers who enjoy military history or who want to know more about the Opium Wars will be rewarded, though many Rutherfurd fans may be disappointed.