Breaking Bamboo by Tim Murgatroyd

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Breaking Bamboo by Tim Murgatroyd

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A well-paced plot following the Yun Clan through the fictional siege of Nancheng by the Mongols, that rattles through the story, but fails to engage the emotions.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 576 Date: October 2010
Publisher: Myrmidon Books
ISBN: 978-1905802388

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Summer 1266, Nancheng in Central China and Doctor Shih is struggling to cope with the monsoon season, when he gets a midnight summons to Peacock Hill: ancient palace complex and now home to the Pacification Commissioner, his wife, concubines and various officials and hangers on. Wang Ting-bo's only son and heir is apparently dying and all the great and good of the medical guild are unable to save him. They recommend the employment of magicians in the hope of driving out the evil spirits.

Yun Shih is too lowly an individual to belong to the medical guild, but his experience working with the poorest of the city in the Water Basin Ward is sufficient to know that the boy is suffering from the dry coughing sickness. It can be treated. He may live, or he may not. Unlike the pandering doctors of the guild, fearful for their own futures should their treatment fail, Yun Shih is not afraid to say so.

It gives nothing away to say that the treatment is successful and thus the Wang family become indebted to Shih. At least, some of them do. One is not so happy with the outcome. Wang Bai, nephew and second heir to Wang Ting-bo might just have preferred the young boy to die. Favourite concubine Lu Ying detests Wang Ting-bo's 'First Wife' with a passion, and might also have gained by the boy's demise. Certainly she loses by his survival. 'First Wife' had extracted an oath from her husband that if the boy was allowed to live he would banish the lady Lu forever.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country (Wei Valley, Western China) Shih's twin brother Yun Guang is sneaking back into the family home – now occupied by the subjugating Mongols. He is there to perform a rite for the ancestors, but inadvertently disturbs a Mongol noble at play with a reluctant local woman provoking a fight with one of the local lords and his entourage.

Equally predictably, Guang escapes and makes his way back to Nancheng, finally discovering what has happened to his parents along the way.

What follows is the differing plights of Shih and Guang as the Mongol horde approaches and ultimately besieges the twin cities of Nancheng and Fuzou.

Murgatroyd's middle novel of a trilogy is rich in period detail, and progresses at a pace slow enough to sustain the ancient Chinese serenity-in-adversity atmosphere, but quick enough to allow for battles and tragedies and keep the reader turning the page.

The Author's note confirms that both places and events are fictitious, but bear resemblances to historical events (the siege of Xianyang is mentioned) whilst freely admitting a loose hand with the real chronology of the times.

Breaking Bamboo is entertaining enough for those with an interest in the period and the place, and suitably littered with cultural insights on religion, ceremony, rites, culinary and medical customs; equally so with militaria – weapons being accorded particularly detailed exposition. Somehow, however, it fails to engage sympathy for the characters. With a few exceptions the villains are pantomime caricatures, engendering derision or contempt by their actions but never fleshed out enough to have their actions either mitigated or heightened by understanding their personal motivations.

This might be excusable with the main focus being on the Yun clan, but Shih, his wife Cao, Lu Ying and Guang scarcely fare better in the empathy stakes. Despite one or other of these characters being centre stage for every scene, despite all the events that befall them and the decisions they take in the face of those events, somehow I was never really made to care about them; certainly not enough to be eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

The middle novel of a trilogy is notorious difficult, often being little more than a link-chain between the initial drama and the resolution of its companions. Murgatroyd has managed to avoid that pitfall and produce a novel that stands well enough alone. The back-stories of Shih and Guang are woven in through memory-pieces, so we are aware of what has gone before. Coming in to the story in the middle I found this helpful, but if the events described are those which form the body of the first book, then I'm sure I'd find their inclusion irritating and unnecessary. A question of balance? I don't think so – I think it's the difference between writing a series of books, linked but intended to be stand-alone novels, and writing a trilogy, which should be a single work, divided into three purely to be manageable.

For me the main failing is that the author has chosen harsh and violent times for his oeuvre, but then stands back from both the harshness and the violence. The battles occur rather than raging across the page. The rampant inflation and resultant starvation are half-painted backdrops.

All in all it tells a decent story, but is as bland as plain noodles when it could have been a hot ginger-chilli concoction.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion For more Chinese History try Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie or if you’re of a more romantic frame of mind Peony in Love by Lisa See.

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