Review of Yang Shen from by rcnewt

Having recently finished the unabridged version of Les Miserables, when I began Yang Shen I immediately noticed a similarity between the technique of Mr Lande with the work of Victor Hugo. Both authors have interspersed chapters containing a wide variety of historical detail with other chapters which weave the threads of exciting, action stories.
The drama of Yang Shen extends from fighting pirates on the high seas to negotiating passage through vicious rebel armies on the upper reaches of the treacherous Yangtze River. Our hero, Fletcher Thorson Wood, looking to make his fortune, agrees to help the imperial Chinese forces against rebels threatening Shanghai. The story of the ebb and flow of his efforts to raise, arm, train and commit to battle a rag-tag force of drunken has-beens is a complicated tale full of intrigue and nail-biting action but described most capably by Mr. Lande. The cast of characters range from pompous, ornately dressed mandarins to scruffy native junk men in dirty padded jackets, as well as a variety of soldiers and riverboat crew. The close of the story leaves us anxiously awaiting Book II.
I can heartily recommend this book to scholars of history as well as any others looking for “page-turning” action. The meticulously researched volume includes many maps of the times and supplementary data to support most readers interests.
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One Response to Review of Yang Shen from by rcnewt

  1. Administrator says:

    Old China Books says:

    Victor Hugo – now there’s company for an author. Sounds, however, like I may not have done as well as I might have at integrating description and narrative in the view of RC. Note there are no completely off-topic digressions like the natural history of the whale in Moby Dick – Yang Shen endeavors to blend history and action as smoothly and unobtrusively as possible. An example I wrote in journal back in 1995 illustrates.

    “Examples of genre historical fiction often fail to smoothly incorporate fact, being content to employ random facts as little more than window-dressing for setting a scene. “More and more men poured into the street putting on coats and hats, many already armed with pistols and muskets, a few with the latest American breech-loading rifles” is an example from Clavell’s Gaijin. The unfortunate image of “streets putting on coats” is only a distraction when “latest American breech-loading rifles” stands out as a fact clumsily calling attention to itself. Alternatives such as “the crowd grew with men struggling into coats and hats, men clutching pistols and muskets or nervously fingering Sharps breech-loading rifles” or “the crowd grew with men struggling into coats and hats, men nervously fingering pistols and muskets or breech-loading rifles” assimilate the historical fact quietly but without losing the import of the fact; the gaffe really is the word “latest” and, once removed, the fact becomes more demure. Another example from Gaijin is “the well-kept, beaten earth roadway was massed with disciplined streams of travelers to and from Yedo, which one day would be called Tokyo” which not only is misplaced but also rudely jerks the reader out of the year 1860 and into the future.

    “So, it would appear there is a specific manner of employment for historical facts in a fictional narrative, which manner I’ll call “assimilation,” that requires facts be deftly blended into narrative and dialogue. As an example take this snippet from Yang Shen that recently underwent assimilative surgery.

    ‘The buoys at the Lang Shan crossing, which had just recently been placed by H. M. S. Bouncer after
    Admiral Hope’s expedition to Nanking, were visible in the distance.’

    “Here the sentence is both encumbered and unbalanced by historical trivia that serves no purpose; it’s also ambiguous about what was placed, the buoys or the crossing.

    ‘In the distance they could see the recently placed buoys at the Lang Shan crossing.’

    “This sentence calls attention to itself with unexplained trivia. Why should I care they’re recently placed? “Recently” acts like “latest” in the earlier example above, and calls attention to the planting of a fact.

    ‘ Thompson gave the signal to slow as the Triton approached the Lang Shan crossing.
    “Why are we slowing?”
    “Of all the shifting shoals in the Yangtze, this place is the worst, even with the new buoys in the shallows.
    Bouncer placed ’em after the British Admiral ran aground here. Trying to get upriver to parley with the
    rebels, he was. That was last April, or May, an’ I’d bet gold bars ‘gin gum drops that the channel’s already
    twisted around some differn’t way. If Triton’s going aground, I’ll be damned if it’s not on a risin’ tide at three knots.” ‘

    “The history’s been better assimilated into narrative now. First, it’s not just thrown out as a one liner to get it in. Second, it serves a narrative purpose as well as dresses up the windows: now it’s part of the pilot’s justification for slowing the vessel. Third, and maybe most important, its presence has inspired something more than would’ve been there: “on a risin’ tide at three knots” is a good line, an enhancement that came from playing with the historical allusion.”

    I’ll review Book I to see if I can ID clumsy passages that caught RC’s attention, and see if I can be less like Victor Hugo in the story yet to come.

    James Lande

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