Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Secrets of Jin-Shei

The Secrets of Jin-Shei is an elegant, dreamlike epic set in a China-inspired fantasy world. A deeply female, deeply human story, it covers the life of evil sorcerers, the rise and fall of dynasties, natural disasters, wars from within and without, always through a focus on the nine women who choose to be bound to each other through the voluntary sisterhood of Jin-Shei.
With nine starring heroines and the evolution of an empire to record, Alma Alexander has to make deep cuts from her story to fit it all in one book. Unusually for a fantasy author, most of what she chooses to cut are the fight scenes. The civil wars and bloody intrigues are often mentioned, but described chiefly through the effect they have on the women of the sisterhood. It's a rare decision, and a powerful one; by seeing the story always through the very human eyes of her heroines, Alexander gives her grand events the overwhelming force they should have -- with none of their force explained away by an omniscient narrator. The few battles that are witnessed and participated in by some of the women, both physical and magical, are painful, shocking occasions, traumas that mark the book as much as physical trauma should mark an everyday life.
The nine pairs of eyes that witness these epic happenings are each, on their own, normal women. Some, like the empress sisters Antian and Liudan, are born to power, and some, like the sage Nianh or lifelong soldier Quiaan, find it through their own efforts. The central sister, Tai, is a seamstress her whole life through, and barely touches on the intrigues of her more powerful sisters. But all are only human, working, with talents and chances anyone might find, and all are made more by their ties with each other. Through Jin-Shei, seamstress Tai sees into the empress' court, street beggar Nianh becomes a powerful sage and gypsy girl Tammary roams farther than she hopes.
No recounting of the plot could do Alexander's work justice. Secrets of the Jin-Shei Sisterhood isn't a straightforward, linear story, but an interweaving of lives to form a single picture. The only way to really appreciate the effort, toil and beauty of it all is to join in the sisterhood yourself.

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