I very much wanted to like Alma Alexander's The Secrets of Jin-Shei (2004); indeed, I felt sure that I would. A tale of high politicking and sisterhood in an invented world based on medieval China, it sounded like it had great potential; that the author (as I saw when I picked the book off my TBR shelves) acknowledged a large debt of inspiration to Guy Gavriel Kay suggested fundamental good taste and, surely, an eye for the right emotional notes.
What I found between the pretty covers was not a bad novel, precisely - it was an entertaining enough read, if hardly challenging or especially memorable - but certainly a disappointing one, in both conception and execution.
I'll begin with the former. At the core of the novel is the idea and institution of jin-shei, alluded to in the opening quotation: a self-chosen, semi-secret and non-kinship tie between two (or more) women, promising mutual support and affection. This is based in, or developed alongside (it's unclear), the women's language of jin-ashu. Jin-ashu, as Alexander explains in her author's note, was inspired by Nü Shu (literally "women's writing"). This is a script, not a separate language, that was developed and used - in secret - by women in a particular region of China; it was a response to a localised social taboo against women learning the standard way of reading and writing Chinese.
It is, or should be, a fascinating idea to shape a story around. (Or, for that matter, a historical monograph!) My problem with its use in The Secrets of Jin-Shei is that the author fails to build up a world in which it could thrive convincingly. Alexander gestures (often quite successfully) at hierarchies and power dynamics based on social class, and an urban/rural divide. This is neatly displayed, for example, in one main character's rebuke to another - I liked the juxtaposition of 'search' and 'demand', here, a simple distinction between which lies a world of privilege:
"Liudan!" Yuet said. "You were born to silk and to power. Do not mock another's need. You have never had to search for your answers, only demand them. There are many out there who are not so lucky."
But there is little sense that men's and women's worlds are so divided and differentiated in her land of 'Syai' as to give rise to entirely separate means of self-expression. I found I was compelled by the idea, but struggled to see the point; although I am apparently not alone in this:
"A jin-shei-bao is a good thing to have when you are hurting and need help. I would accept your Qiaan's pledge."
"Have you got one?" Xaforn asked bluntly.
"Yes," Yuet said.
"What do you do?" Xaforn asked, perplexed.
A number of the main characters are young women who tread in what might be seen as "men's" spheres with little apparent obstacle: blunt Xaforn is a cadet in a decidedly equal-opportunities military (and is, naturally, a hand-to-hand combat whiz), dreamy Nhia becomes a respected religious teacher, and poet Tai scandalises precisely no-one when she chooses (and proposes to) her own future husband. Yuet, meanwhile, has to engage in some sleight-of-hand (and recruit a friend in a high place) to maintain her career as a healer - and expand it to include the royal court - when her teacher dies abruptly, but this is due to her youth and the fact that her teacher had yet to draw up the necessary papers to appoint Yuet as her heir, not to her gender.
Those who do face difficulties do so mostly (it seems) for plot reasons. Capricious, insecure Luidan is catapulted up the imperial succession (which runs through the female line) by an earthquake that claims the lives of both her parents and her older sisters; but when she chooses to secure her position as Empress by going against custom and remaining unmarried, we are told this is a shocking thing, but shown little outrage and little opposition (let alone any that is remotely effective), until such opposition becomes important to the story. When Luidan further goes against precedent to appoint her low-born jin-shei sister Nhia as her Chancellor, no-one seems to bat an eyelid.
Only in Khailin, the highly-intelligent scion of a well-to-do and ambitious family, do we see anything of the constrictions historically placed upon women: she is to be married off in a way beneficial to her family's status and, while she is permitted by her father's indulgence to learn to read and write the men's language alongside jin-ashu, her mother disapproves of such unsuitable behaviour in a young woman, and it is expected that she will give her interests up once she is married.
In the meantime Khailin had done her best to make sure that her betrothal did not interfere unduly with her last year or so of freedom. It could turn out well - it might have been for the best - but sometimes she wished savagely that her body was crippled like Nhia's was - that a good marriage had been harder to arrange. That she had been given more time.
These constrictions, however, seem to owe much more to her family's high status than to her identity as a woman; there is no contrast provided to suggest that a high-born man would not be similarly at the mercy of his family when it came to decisions about his future. (Most of her other jin-shei sisters, including Tai and Qiaan, are of a much lower status and come under no such pressure to marry.) In any case, all this functions largely to drive Khailin in the direction required by the plot: her thirst for knowledge of alchemy leads her to defy her family and take up with a man whom she believes can help her achieve such knowledge - a man who, of course, turns out to be not what he seemed.
Furthermore, when male and female characters do interact, they - with the exception of the villain and our heroines - do so in ways that read, well, very much like the ways in which men and women interact today (Tai and her husband share much of the childcare duties, for example). It is not even clear what need Syai's women would have to write their secret feelings to each other in their secret script, since all concerned* are free to move about the city in which they live and visit their friends in private whenever they wish, without interference and even when they are supposedly busy raising families and running households (traditionally an extremely labour-intensive and time-consuming occupation) or, y'know, running an empire.
[*Khailin partially excepted, for spoilery reasons.]
I don't mean to imply that all the men ought to be violently oppressing their wives; rather, that the sense of parallel-but-separate experiences and languages inherent in the idea of jin-shei and jin-ashu, and of a pervasive gender-based power balance that intersects with but is distinct from social status, is never brought to life or demonstrated. The book's central concept, in other words, has great potential, but never feels organic to its world.
My problem with the execution, meanwhile, is two-fold. The first is Alexander's tendency to overegg her pudding. This suits the setting well, providing the immense amounts of background detail and description that help the world to breathe, and feel lived-in, rather than just a brightly-coloured backdrop. (I was pleasantly surprised by how successful Alexander was in this, in fact, given her ill-advised and rather telling observation, in the afterword, that her world is as "ornate as only things Oriental can be". Paging Edward Said...!)
It is less welcome when applied to the story's events: no emotion goes undersold, no political nuance, however simple, unexplained; no opportunity is missed for info-dumping about customs or emphasising how Important and Heart-rending a moment is. Jin-shei is absolutely the most secret and precious and rare thing in a woman's life - so characters and narration alike tell us repeatedly, and somewhat nauseatingly - except that virtually every such relationship we see established in the book seems to be the product of a whim. Or, more interestingly, of calculation:
[T]his was what she had wanted, exactly what she had wanted, when she had set out to draw Nhia into her circle. For jin-shei sisters, it would be easy to twine lives and fortunes together - and Nhia could be the only thing left to Khailin, the only source of knowledge, of that power that she needed to keep within reach if she were to remain herself and whole. It would not be the first jin-shei bond which had been born out of a more prosaic need rather than of a purity of heart - but even those, according to Khailin's mother's stash of jin-ashu literature, were overcome by the power of the vow.
Most of all, Alexander is too quick and too unyielding in directing the reader - through a slightly muddled omniscient narration - to her desired verdict on the characters, their actions, and their motivations. Feelings are not evoked, but described. In short, she wades deeply into the murky depths of telling, not showing, and it gets tedious:
[Tammary] was angry at her family, bitterly wounded at what she saw as Raian's treachery, raging with impotent fury at her mother, at the Emperor himself, at whoever had conspired to make her life this convoluted spiral and abandoned her here to deal with it in ignorance and the innocence of the fool.
To some extent, this is a stylistic choice and a matter of taste; elsewhere, Alexander has some lovely turns of phrase. Here is Tai
They say that the bones of the earth remember the feet that walk upon them, if those feet belong to a great spirit - I know that the northern mountains recall your quiet step on their marbled stone, and still sing of it in the early mornings.
The title of the post, furthermore, comes from Tammary's observation of how Tai lives her life: "'Being with her is like sitting beside a deep pool of bright water and watching the waterlilies bloom, opening up petal by petal. She gives rest. She has this perfect life, this balance, the steady flame in the darkness'". This instance, however, would be even more satisfying if there had been any prior indication that Tammary, an illiterate wildchild and woman of flame and movement and impulsiveness, who expresses herself not through speech but through dance, had any interest in, or ear for, such poetic words.
My second problem with the novel's execution is that it is not particularly well plotted or paced. The story eases by, readable and entertaining, but there is little in the way of narrative tension, and a lot of flabby detail. Set-pieces are repeatedly fluffed (one character's death at the hands of a mob, late on, is more cursory than shocking or upsetting), twists rarely come unheralded, and several important story developments pivot upon people acting in stupid and uncharacteristic ways (step up, Yuet and Khailin agreeing to help Luidan's abrupt desire for immortality). Major characters disappear for a hundred pages at a time and return utterly changed (Qiaan), while we watch others live their lives in incremental detail (Nhia, Tai). The villain is assumed to be dead when of course he is nothing of the sort. The melodramatic denouement teeters on the ridiculous, mistaking multiple character deaths for events of genuine emotion.