Chengdu: a teeming, modern metropolis.
Yet China’s painful turbulent history still leaves its mark on the minds of all who live there.
Philip Ye, half English, half Chinese, is a homicide detective with the Chengdu Public Security Bureau who suffers his own anguish from a life blighted by tragedy and the unsettling appearance of ghosts that often intrude in on his investigations.
On a misty grey morning one such apparition leads him to a busy street corner during the rush hour where he bears witness to a shocking event. Against his better judgment, Phillip is drawn into the search for a missing, vulnerable boy. His investigation brings him into contact with Xu Ya, a brilliant and beautiful public prosecutor. She is new to Chengdu, determined not only to make her mark but to also leave behind her own personal heartbreak. They have crossed paths before. He has no memory of her, but she remembers him very well indeed….
Soon enough Philip Ye has a vicious murder on his hands, and then another – the boy’s disappearance seemingly sparking a chain of violent events. With the help of Xu Ya – dedicated to upholding făzhì, the Rule of Law, in China ‒ and her indefatigable and worldly-wise assistant Fatty Deng, Phillip Ye is quickly on the trail of a mysterious figure known as The Willow Woman. But, unbeknownst to them all, there are secretive and subversive forces at work within the dark heart of the city and tremendous danger awaits….
First of all, massive thanks to Laurence Westwood for sending me a copy of The Willow Woman! Laurence contacted me a few months ago, asking me if I’d be interested to read and review his book and of course I accepted, I mean, have you read that synopsis?! Also, I had so much cover love for The Willow Woman! Blogtour books and life got a bit in the way (thanks again for your patience and understanding, Laurence!) but finally I had the time and the right frame of mind to get stuck in it.
The right frame of mind? Yes, I confess, my name is Kelly and I’m a mood reader. While I always try to keep up with the books I have to read and get ahead of my blogtours schedule, I also try to pick up books I’m in the mood for. If I don’t, I just don’t enjoy it as much as I probably would have otherwise. Admittedly, it took me a little while to be in the mood for The Willow Woman because of its setting: China. While that felt rather unique and while I was curious to see how the setting would influence the story, I’d been having busy, brain-foggy days and I was a tad worried about the Chinese names: I’m not very good with names, let alone names in a language I don’t know. I haven’t read many books with an Asian setting, frankly I only remember two: Memoirs of a Geisha (which I loved) and Wild Swans (which I DNF’d), so I thought I’d have to be clear-headed and clear-scheduled. Folks, let me tell you: I needn’t have worried! Laurence even had the foresight to include a list of characters at the beginning of the book, which did come in handy in the beginning of the book, when I did sneak a peek every once in a while to check who someone was, or how they were connected to the main character, but after the introductory pages had ended and the story was in full force, I had zero problems remembering who everyone was. So if like me, you’re bad with names, no worries!
Speaking of names, these are the most important ones. Philip Ye, son of an English mother and an (in)famous Chinese father. His looks are English but his heart is Chinese. He is often made fun of because of his movie star looks, but he couldn’t care less about his own handsomeness, he isn’t the least bit arrogant and he’s not a womaniser. There’s Xu Ya, the new prosecutor. She may be beautiful, but first and foremost she is sharp as a tack and has an extreme sense of justice, she’s kind, she’s brave, she has quite a dark history and I enjoyed the glimpses into her former life. There’s Fatty Deng with his Hawaiian shirts, little Mouse who’s terrified of her own shadow but steps up all the same, Constable Ma whom I pictured as a Chinese Brienne of Tart. By the end of the book, I had become so invested in these people that they had ceased to be mere characters, they had become my friends.
Like I said above, I’m not well-versed in Asian-based books. The majority of the thrillers I read are set in the UK or the US, places I may not have been yet, but close enough to my own world for them to seem familiar. And they often feel a tad interchangeable in terms of setting, too. Take a thriller set in, say, Brighton, and put the characters and their story in a Belgian seaside town, most of the times, it would work. So I was very curious about the setting in China, and how much it would influence the story, if at all. As it turns out: you could not take this story out of China. At all. Chinese culture is intricately and masterfully woven into the storylines, so much so and in such a way, that I feel I have learned a lot with very little effort. Laurence is obviously quite the sinologist and interlaces a superb detective story / thriller with Chinese history, law, traditions and customs. The long and short of it is: if you’re at all interested in Chinese culture in the broadest sense, do yourself a favour and pick up The Willow Woman!
One last remark: the blurb mentions ghosts, but if you’re looking for a paranormal thriller, this isn’t it. Ghosts are but an itty-bitty part of the story, they are mentioned more as a kind of cultural phenomenon than anything else, and rather in passing too, so don’t let that scare you off if you’re not into ghosts, and don’t let it be the reason to pick up this book if you are.
A brilliant book with brilliant characters that took me completely by surprise. Highly recommended! I for one am keeping everything crossed that this won’t be Philip Ye’s last outing. Although the story is nicely wrapped up at the end I do feel there is lots more to tell, and, let me tell you, if there’s a second instalment I will be first in line to get my mitts on it! I do hope to find out soon, since Laurence has graciously accepted my invitation for a Q&A, so stay tuned and in the meantime, why don’t you check out The Willow Woman here on Amazon?
I hope you all know that my book love and gushing is genuine and I don’t fake it because I was gifted a book, but just to be clear: the fact that I was gifted The Willow Woman did not in any way influence my review. All my opinions and views are my own and are completely unbiased.