With The Jade Lady, Taiwan resident Patrick Wayland brings us a spy thriller, which will give a novice a quick primer on the China-Taiwan relationship, written from a strongly pro-Taiwan perspective. And despite an unpromising title, referring to a valuable sculpture that is tangential to the main story, it’s not a bad primer, as the novel is an engaging, easy to read page-turner.
Lance Roven is an American expat working for a financial firm in Hong Kong. He likes living in Greater China and has a decent life. When he hears that his grandfather back in Arizona is near death, he flies home.
His dying grandfather entrusts him with the key to a safe-deposit box and a mission that harkens back to his days serving in the U.S. Army in Asia in the 1940s. The contents of the box turn out to be a mysterious Chinese document and an enigmatic letter. Lance is befuddled, but his curiosity is intense. He uses his grandfather’s letter to do some amateur sleuthing, and through a friend he asks experts take a look at the Chinese document. Soon, word gets around to the Chinese government, for as it turns out, Lance has the first page of a long-lost treaty between the Nationalists and the Communists in the Chinese Civil War.
Beijing is keen not to let this piece of history escape their control, so in order to persuade Lance to give up what he’s found, they dispatch Professor Ying, a US-based historian who is clearly at their command. Dr. Ying thinks Lance has the entire treaty and tries to buy it off him, but when this fails, he resorts to making vague threats and spouting nationalistic clichés about how Lance needs to respect Chinese history and culture. Strangely, Lance is unmoved by this. After that, it is not long before his employer in Hong Kong mysteriously fires him and thugs break into his family’s home to look for the missing treaty.
Rather than conclude he is in way over his head and give up, Lance becomes determined to complete the quest his grandfather gave him. (Not surprising, after Professor Ying did his best to come across as an evil villain any hero would be happy to oppose. Good diplomatic skills you’ve got there, Ying.) Following the trail of clues, he flies to Taipei, where he believes the remainder of the treaty is hidden. Mutual contacts set him up there with Annie Lee, a museum employee who cares passionately about history and about truth, and as it turns out is prepared to risk her life to defend what is right. She knows that the treaty could radically reshape the world’s understanding of the end of the civil war – and Beijing’s claims on Taiwan. Lance finds Annie to be a very attractive woman, but their potential relationship never takes over the story, which is probably for the best.
Over the remainder of the book, the two of them search for the remainder of the treaty, along with the finely sculpted Jade Lady (the eponymous McGuffin – pretty much irrelevant to the plot, unlike the document it is hidden with). But even in Taipei, Lance suspects men are following him. And there’s Professor Ying again – what’s he doing in Taiwan?
All in all, what we have here is a well-written, engaging spy thriller. This is not the sort of book one reads for extremely nuanced characterizations, but Lance and Annie are more than agreeable companions as we follow these amateur spies doing their best trying to evade the villainous professor and his gang of thugs in the streets of Taipei, the Wenhu line of the MRT, and eventually the top of Taipei 101. The action sequences are reasonably well done (although few readers will be genuinely in fear for Lance or Annie’s lives), and while the opening chapters do take their time meticulously setting up the key pieces of the plot, once that’s done the story moves along at a quick pace. The glimpses we see of Lance’s upbringing make the action hero skills that emerge seem just plausible enough.
Wayland’s work ought to please spy thriller fans, as well as those who like to see good English-language fiction set in Taiwan. As mentioned above, the book also serves as a decent introduction to the China-Taiwan issue for novices. Various aspects of the historical context are introduced to readers by means of memorable supporting characters, such as Aboriginal Taiwanese activist Ma La and talkative old ROC veteran Phileas Chow. The novel wears its viewpoint on its sleeve and does not pretend to be impartial: a person who insists on Beijing’s official line on Taiwan will, needless to say, be unhappy with Wayland’s politics.
I suppose some might also take issue with the fact that the mainland Chinese (not counting old-timers residing in Taiwan) are uniformly depicted as creepy, violent thugs, but this is a depiction of the government, not the people; it’s difficult to imagine even the most naive reader coming away with the impression that China is a nation of 1.3 billion creepy thugs.
Another potential pitfall avoided is that “White guy in Asia” clichés are mostly absent, relegated to Lance’s American co-worker in Hong Kong, who comes down with a bad case of culture shock and is shipped home with a nervous breakdown within the first few pages.
But I was left with an unanswered question. The book’s climax depends on the existence of a Chinese character that is widely recognized as being pronounced tru. What character could Wayland be thinking of?
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Reviewed by Brendan Cody (a Taipei-based blogger who writes at Balancing Frogs).
To learn more about Patrick Wayland, The Jade Lady, and his other books, visit his Amazon Author Page.