I don’t usually anticipate books coming out anymore, because usually I end up getting my hopes up for nothing. But this book looked particularly good, both by the synopsis and the cover, so I decided to read it. And several months after it came out (because I never do anything quickly), I finally read it.
And I have positive to mixed feelings.
Usually, I do a longer non-spoiled review and a shorter spoiler section, but I feel like with this book almost everything is going to be a spoiler, so I’ll be sharing a lot of spoilers (which end up being just a fraction of all the spoilers contained in this convoluted book).
Release: Feb. 2019
Synopsis: Ren is an eleven-year-old boy tasked with finding the finger of his dying master and burying it with his body for his soul to find peace. He has forty-nine days. Ji Lin wants to be a doctor, but is unable due to her strict stepfather, and instead becomes a dancehall girl to pay off her mother’s debts. In the backdrop of 1930s Malaysia, a tiger stalks in the darkness as five strangers’ lives interconnect.
On the surface, this is a historical drama, but it quickly devolves into a murder mystery with fantasy elements. There is a lot to love about this book and for the most part I enjoyed it. The setting is incredibly weaved into the story, and I loved the constant questioning about the fantasy elements (whether there were things like weretigers and curses). The characters were mostly amazing, especially Ji Lin and Ren. There was one main character I disliked, but I’ll get to that in a minute. And the ending, for me, was a bit disappointing, especially since there were so many interesting elements which were brought into the story that had no conclusion.
Again, it’s difficult thinking of what to say without bringing in spoilers. The book is divided mostly between Ji Lin’s and Ren’s perspective, though it does go into William’s (Ren’s boss, a doctor and avid womanizer) on occasion. I didn’t mind this, but it was disconcerting that the tense changed so drastically between the two. Ji Lin’s was written in first person past perspective, whereas Ren/William’s was written in third person present perspective. I’m not sure why Choo choose to change it so drastically, but it did make it difficult for me to get into the book at first.
Like I said, most of the characters I enjoyed, whether they were good or bad. Ji Lin is an highly moral character with a kind heart and strong will. I loved her, though I didn’t agree with all of her decisions (just most of them). It is she who prompts the story, as one of her customers at the dance hall drops the finger Ren is searching for. That very customer dies that night, and she determines to find the true owner of the finger. I loved how fearless and determined she was, even though she also had her weaknesses. Ren equally is adorable. At only eleven, he acts far above his age, in both wisdom and understanding. He watches people and understands depth like few children his age, and yet he is also trusting and young.
The only character I absolutely hated was Shin, Ji Lin’s step-brother (her mother married his father when they were ten). I’ll get more into him in the spoiler section, but his and Ji Lin’s relationship was one of the few things I truly disliked in this book.
There are so many interesting themes throughout the book though. For example, the idea of the five Confucian virtues: Ren (charity and humanity), Yi (honesty and uprightness), Zhi (knowledge or wisdom), Xin (faithfulness), and Li (propriety and correct behavior). Five of the main characters share a connection, each of which ties back to these virtues. You probably picked out Ren as one of them. Yi, his twin brother who died a couple years before this story takes place, is the second. Ji Lin (Ji is a different spelling for Zhi) is the third, and her step-brother Shin (Xin) is the fourth. They are all interconnected in the story, and eventually learn who the last person is in the end (but that’s a major spoiler).
Also, the constant theme of whether magic is real or not. Both Ji Lin and Ren have strange dreams, and there are the mysterious attacks by a tiger, so rarely seen in Malaysia. It all ties pretty well in the end.
But, in order for me to get into the details, let’s get into a lot of spoilers.
This book devolves into a multiple murder mystery very quickly. You have two local women murdered (one by an apparent tiger attack and the other from apparent heart failure), the salesman who drops the finger for Ji Lin ends up dead, a nurse is thrown down some stairs, and an orderly at the hospital Shin and William work at has bricks thrown on his head. It’s rather convoluted, so I won’t get into all the details, but let’s just say I was surprised how much of a murder mystery it was. In total (though I may be missing someone), there is a body count of six by the end, including Ren’s old master who dies at the beginning. That is insane for a book that isn’t categorized as a mystery.
So let’s move more towards the fantasy elements. You have Ji Lin and Ren, both having dreams in which Yi (Ren’s dead twin brother) talks to them near this dream train station (we learn later that if you take the train, you die in the real world). Even in the real world, Ren feels things (he senses when the finger is close and is drawn to Ji Lin). But even though Shin is supposed to be part of the five, he doesn’t have dreams and never shows an infinity to the supernatural like the other three. Also, the fifth person never shows this supernatural ability either.
Speaking of Shin, let me devolve into a rant of his character briefly. He’s been in love with Ji Lin for years, but he made a promise to his father never to touch her while in their family home. Thus, for years he never confessed his feelings, until he returns from medical school and she starts liking him. In the meantime, she’s trying to find the owner of the finger, and he goes with her to several places. Finally, they figure out it needs to be buried with Ren’s old master and travel far away to bury it. They bury the finger and miss the last train home. They spend the night at a hotel, posing as a married couple instead of siblings (because a single bed is cheaper than two beds). And then he makes a pass at her, stating that the only reason he went with her was to get in her pants…I mean, excuse me? Up until this point, I didn’t mind the hints that there may be a romance brewing between the two, but keep in mind Ji Lin is experiencing a lot of stress and has proven her mystical connection to Ren. While she’s doing this, all Shin cares about is sleeping with her. She turns him down, but boy does he push.
Worst of all, at the end of the book, when she asks him to wait a year before she makes her decision about them marrying (and perfectly reasonable request, considering she looked at him only as her brother until a month before), he says, “In a year and a day, if you haven’t made up your mind, then you’ll be mine.”
I kind of wanted to smack him at that point. A healthy relationship should be made up of active communication, mutual respect, and understanding of the other’s boundaries. Why is he suddenly reminding me of Christian Grey from 50 Shades of Grey (a character I never want to be reminded of)?
As you can guess, I wasn’t a fan of the romance. And finally, the ending.
So, one of the murderers is caught and falls off a roof, dying. But the other one isn’t, and turns out to be the fifth virtue. As it turned out, this character (I’m not cruel enough to divulge that final spoiler, because it was my personal favorite one) kills three people and ends up not getting caught, even though the person they love ends up dying because of their actions. I know this isn’t a murder mystery, but I need more justice in the end!
In a book like this, where you are always questioning the fantasy elements, there are three ways to end it: magic, non-magic, and ambiguous. In other words, the story could have embraced the magical elements, ended with a purely logical explanation, or given neither and left it ambiguous. This book took the third route, meaning we never found out if the tiger was indeed a weretiger (a person who transforms into a tiger) or just a real tiger. We never found out why William was having dreams similar to Ji Lin if he was, in fact, not one of the five virtues. We never found out if Yi (Ren’s twin brother) passed over finally as a ghost. I just felt like the ending was so open-ended it was unsatisfying. For the record, I don’t mind partially open-ended books, but not one as much as this one. But that’s a personal taste, I think.
This review turned out to be nearly twice the length of my usual reviews. My apologies for that and, if you made it this far, congratulations!
Anyway, for the most part, I liked this book. The setting was fascinating, since I don’t know much about Malaysia in the 1930s. The characters were mostly interesting and the mystery kept me reading quicker than I usual do (I finished this book in one day, for the record). The romance was horrible by the end, but I won’t rant more about that. The fantasy elements were great, but left too open-ended for my tastes.
All in all, it was an enjoyable book and I will be definitely reading more books by this author.
Have you heard of this book? What are your thoughts of fantasy sprinkled into other genres? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,