The book trade genre into which these books fit is "women's fiction," but the historical element, plus the culturally aware approach to China, Chinese people, and to foreigners living in China place these books far, far away from the bodice-ripping melodrama of Mills & Boone.
The new book, The Emperor's Bones, is set 25 years beyond the turn-of-the-century drama of the Boxer Rebellion. Several of the characters have transitioned through from Palace to the 1920s, including the once-dashing hero Henry Manners, and a particularly evil Chinese military man. The tone and the feel is the same, the story is as well-plotted as ever, the dialogue just as real.
The only question for me is how understandable the historical context will be for the average airport lounge reader.
The Boxer Rebellion, which provides the platform for the first book, was a huge explosion of anti-foreigner sentiment, the last gasp of the old China. Missionaries were executed, the foreign legations in Beijing were besieged, but managed to hold out until a foreign army came to rescue them thanks to the bravery and resolve of Charlton Heston and David Niven. It was a starkly clear historical incident, not too tough for the blue-rinse Florida set to grasp.
But The Emperor's Bones is set in the early-mid 1920s, at a time when China is controlled by warlords. The political situation of that era is confused and grey even for China scholars, let alone casual airport bookshop browsers in Albuquerque. All those Chinese names, the complex relationships between warlords and the Japanese military, Bolsheviks and Chinese nationalists…it is a challenging backdrop to a tale of love and betrayal.
Williams tries to offset the historical elements in a postscript, saying: "This is a novel, a fiction, an adventure, a romance, and any concern about historical accuracy is secondary to the main purpose of telling a story. If my reader enjoys this tale only half as much as I did writing it I will be more than half-satisfied."
Whatever the balance, it works. Williams, who is the chief representative of Jardine's in China and a long-time resident of the Middle Kingdom, has made full use of his China knowledge and his narrative powers, and has proved that the first book was not a fluke. The next one will presumably take us through to a new generation 25 years on, with the heroes and villains of all nationalities and their progeny agonizing their way through the Communist takeover in 1949.
I can hardly wait.
The Emperor's Bones, by Adam Williams. Pulished by Hodder & Stoughton. List price is US$31.
Excerpt: The ancient city played a part in her heritage
The walls of Shishan came upon them suddenly. Catherine rose in her seat with a gasp of delight. The ancient battlements and turrets seemed to hang above the plain, like the fortress hill towns on a medieval manuscript. The red moss on the crumbling stonework shone in the mid-morning sunlight like gold tracery. Ahead the dark tunnel yawned under the great crenellated gate tower and Catherine realised that nothing would have changed since her mother first passed under the portcullis more than twenty years before. She knew that this ancient city had played a part in her own heritage, and the very walls seemed to reverberate with the secrets of her past.
The panting rickshawmen pulled up on the timbers of the bridge that crossed the moat in front of the gateway. Soldiers and customs men were examining the loads on peasant carts queuing to enter the city. A young man selling toffee apples was shouting at the top of his voice to drown the cries of a competitor selling pomegranates. Old women in padded jackets and brown headscarves gazed at them curiously. A red cheeked baby bundled in wrappings on a woman's back bawled in terror at the sight of them. A group of coolies filed by with buckets hanging on bamboo poles. Catherine had seen similar sights before but today she was enchanted.
George came up as Edmund was paying off the rickshaw boys. `I'm cold as a block of ice and stiff as a board,' he moaned, rubbing his hands. `Wish I'd had somebody to cuddle with. What do you think of Shishan, Catherine? Suitably exotic? How did old Elroy Flecker put it? While you two have been imitating the proverbial lovebirds I've been mugging up "The Golden Road to Samarkand" in Papa's copy of Hassan I snatched it from his library before we left. "Our camels sniff the evening and are glad,' he quoted. Theatrically he raised a finger to his nose, and flared his nostrils. `Mmm, it's not quite "mastic and terebinth and oil and spice" here, though, is it? What you're smelling are the drains or the open sewers to be exact. Ah, the old Central Asia that I love!'
"The only thing you love is the sound of your own voice,' said Catherine, punching him lightly on the shoulder, `and I'm not going to be put off by a few bad smells. I've come more than five thousand miles to see this place.'
'Come on,' said Edmund. 'Let's find the market square. There's rather a fine Confucian temple there.'
And a brothel. It's also where they held the executions if I recall,' said George gaily. Edmund glared at his brother. `For God's sake, George,' he whispered, `have some tact. That was where Catherine's grandfather and Tom Cabot lost their heads.'
'I mention it merely as a feature of the local history, Edmund,' replied George, equably. `Are we not being antiquarians today?'