The Book of Crows by Sam Meekings

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The Book of Crows by Sam Meekings

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Melony Sanders
Reviewed by Melony Sanders
Summary: Four stories set in four different periods in Chinese history all revolve around an ancient book that tells the future of the world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2011
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846971723

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Having lived in China for a substantial period of time, Sam Meekings has clearly soaked up a great deal of the culture; something he has already put to great effect in his first book, Under Fishbone Clouds. In The Book of Crows, his third book, he continues to show his talent as a non-Chinese raconteur of Chinese culture, but goes one step further by telling a story that spans several periods of Chinese history, thereby giving the reader a glimpse into different people's lives.

First of all, there is Jade, a young girl living in China around 80BC. Kidnapped from her hometown, she is sold to a brothel madam and is forced to work as a prostitute. Back in modern China, a man investigates the supposed death of a colleague and friend in a mine disaster of which the government deny all knowledge. Back to 814BC, and the famous poet, Bai Juyi, is asked to return to the Emperor's Palace after a period of disgrace and the death of his daughter. Finally, two Franciscan monks and their entourage are travelling across the desert in 1288AD, during the Mongol reign, when one becomes ill and begins to tell the other a secret that he nearly took to the grave.

These stories initially appear to have nothing in common, but they do revolve around an ancient Chinese manuscript called The Book of Crows, which supposedly tells the past, present and coming history of the world in such a way that everyone's lives are already mapped out. The location of the book is unclear and so the risk to the world of the book falling into the wrong hands is high. Each of the characters plays a role in passing the book on or finding out exactly where it is kept.

In many ways, The Book of Crows is simply a device to bring the characters together; the book is a mystery that intrigues, but it is nevertheless the characters that hold the reader's attention. Jade is particularly appealing, because she is young and innocent at first, yet is highly observant and actually very smart. Seeing her world through her eyes is fascinating and most definitely the most colourful part of the book. The modern day character is fascinating, although his desire to drink his way through his life becomes a little tiring after a while. Less appealing are the Franciscan monks and Bai Juyi, simply because the story telling in these sections is more dependent on the political setting of the time and the reader has less chance to build up a relationship with the characters.

The book is set out in a way that is initially a little confusing, because although each story is told in chronological order, it tells them in instalments, meaning that the reader often has to skip back to catch up on the last happenings of each character before reading on. The stories also seem to be completely random at first, until The Book of Crows starts to come up. Nevertheless, it doesn't take long to get the hang of the stories and the fact that they are told in instalments actually becomes an advantage in the end, because it encourages the reader to keep going. There is a slight mystical angle, reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code with all the symbols and maps, but this still doesn't detract from the overall appeal of the characters and their lives.

Sam Meekings writes well. The language flows beautifully, despite the many different settings that he needs to describe. His descriptions of the desert are particularly well done, describing it as austere and life-threatening. However, modern day Lanzhou and the ancient palaces are also well done. There is never a feeling that Meekings doesn't really know what he is talking about – no mean feat considering he can only have learned about three of the four periods through research. Most impressive though is his ability to create vivid characters, at least in the case of Jade and Mr Modern Day. It all comes together to create a story that is intriguing and well-written.

The book isn't without its faults. The sections on the Franciscan monks and Bai Juyi are occasionally a little dull and perhaps could have been shortened. There is also the fact that very little is resolved – anyone who likes to have a distinct ending could be disappointed. There is an ending, but it is partially left to the reader to decide how to process it. However, it is a small price to pay for a book that feels highly original, has appealing characters and is beautifully written. Anyone with an interest in China, or simply enjoys reading about a variety of well-drawn characters will appreciate this book very much.

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

If you enjoy this type of fiction, you may also like to read Sam Meekings' first book, Under Fishbone Clouds.

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