Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publication Information: Doubleday. 2021. 800 pages.
ISBN: 0385538936 / 978-0385538930
Opening Sentence: "At first he did not hear the voice behind him."
Favorite Quote: "Put another way, if we want things to stay the same, we must change."
An Edward Rutherfurd book is a commitment - this one at 800 pages, but one that is usually worth the time for a fan of historical fiction. The books depict history as a story (which it is!) and cover in depth the titled place. This one does and doesn't.
Some of Edward Rutherfurd other books trace the history of a place somewhat like James Michener from the beginning to current times. This one does not. For its length, this actually covers a relatively short period of time in Chinese history. China has a history going back thousands of years. This book begins only in the early 1800s in the years leading up to the First Opium Wars. It also stops at somewhat the beginning of Mao's Cultural Revolution, shortening the time period even more.
This time period in history naturally lends itself to a comparisons to today's drug cartels and drug wars. The history of the opium "business" is presented as is the lack of concern for the individual or social impact of the drug use. To those involved, it is simple a "trade", perhaps one they have invested their lives in. The fact this disparity continues in different contexts today is a disturbing. Simply a "trade" with life and world altering implications.
Based on the timing, a significant portion of the book is the Perspective of the British and Americans who find themselves in China at this time - the government officials, the merchants, the pirates, the military, the missionaries, and more. Their perspective, while fascinating, brings a different outlook and vision of the culture and people of China. For parts of the book, it feels the "China" in the this book is missing with this outsider's perspective. It also feels that the story being told is some of the outside stereotypes and the elitism of the colonialists. It does not necessarily depict the majesty - inventions, art, poetry, and so much more - that his part of Chinese history.
At the beginning, the shifting perspectives cause the story to scatter a bit as it is unclear how the characters relate or how the story will come together. Story lines end and pick up, making it at times challenging to follow a thread. Some of them go into detailed descriptions which I find less engaging - particularly those of arms and battles. As expected, some perspectives are more interesting than others. For me, unequivocally, the Chinese perspectives are the ones that draw me in for that is why I chose to read a book titled China!
Despite all of this, ultimately the story and the characters all do come together into a cohesive image. It's like looking at a painting up close and seeing the individual brush strokes and then slowly - very slowly - backing up until the brush strokes disappear into an overall image. It is not the epic image of China I expect, but nevertheless a look at a point in Chinese history.