Review of THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI by ALMA ALEXANDER
I reread this one specifically to review on my blog. I loved it the first time around and worried it might not live up to my memory, but on the second reading it exceeded my expectations. I cared about the characters every bit as much as I remember, I admired the writing style even more this time around, and tragic twists I had completely forgotten brought tears to my eyes.
I adored this book so much it’s hard for me to understand why others might not like it, but after gathering feedback from people who didn’t enjoy this novel I’ve come up with a theory. THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI is fantasy, but it’s very light on the fantasy. From my experience, fiction readers feel annoyed to discover the magical elements while fantasy readers grow frustrated at how small a role magic plays. Underneath any genre labels, though, lies an amazing story and incredible characters.
In fact, I consider this book very character-rooted. The premise centers around the bond of “jin-shei,” mentioned in the title. Jin-shei is a bond of sisterhood. Any girl or woman can propose a jin-shei bond to another and they may accept or refuse the offer. By showcasing numerous jin-shei bonds, Alexander demonstrates how the union can be respected and cherished as sacred or manipulated for an individual’s gain. Anything asked in the name of jin-shei cannot be refused. Some honor that responsibility more than others.
In my review of STORMDANCER by JAY KRISTOFF, I discussed how his book is Japanese influenced without being strictly Japanese, set in a world called Shima that highly resembles - but isn’t - Japan. THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI does the same thing, but with Chinese culture. In the back, Alexander even discusses the line between truth and invention in this novel, including how some of her inventions stemmed from truths.
I don’t like rereading books, because there are so many I still haven’t read once. I do it, though, with some of my favorite books read pre-blogging days so they don’t miss out on the gushing review I think they deserve. I have mixed results, though, with many books reminding me why I don’t like to reread: because I simply don’t enjoy the story as much the second time around. Then there are others - like THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI - that, if anything, impress me even more the second time around. In particular, on my first reading the plot of this novel held my attention so firmly that I barely noticed the writing, so I was surprised when rereading to realize how wonderfully written it is. Alexander crafts phrases so apt and unique that I pause my reading to let them sink in, and she evokes beautiful imagery and powerful setting description that built up this fictional world around me.
What impressed me the most, though, is how much I felt this book, especially given that I’ve read it once before. Saying that a book made you cry always seems misleading to me, because you first need to know how easily that person cries. I’ve had many experiences where someone tells me a book made them cry and after I read it I’m scratching my head and thinking, “Really?” I’m very hard to move to tears. Even when I’m fully invested in a story and the character(s), I’m far more likely to empathize with my stomach (I mean aching not actually throwing up!). THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI choked me up not once but numerous times. Alexander makes me care about these characters as if they are all my own friends, or even jin-shei sisters, and then it’s painful when she starts putting them all to their various tests.
If you prefer easily categorized fiction or dislike works that mix real life with invention, THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI probably won’t resonate with you as it did me. Those disclaimers aside, I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves well-crafted characters, skilled writing, a complex and unpredictable plot, and/or poignant relationships.