Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart

Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa HartThe Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of the acclaimed Li Du novels comes Elsa Hart's new atmospheric mystery series.
London, 1703. In a time when the old approaches to science coexist with the new, one elite community attempts to understand the world by collecting its wonders. Sir Barnaby Mayne, the most formidable of these collectors, has devoted his life to filling his cabinets. While the curious-minded vie for invitations to study the rare stones, bones, books, and artifacts he has amassed, some visitors come with a darker purpose.
For Cecily Kay, it is a passion for plants that brings her to the Mayne house. The only puzzle she expects to encounter is how to locate the specimens she needs within Sir Barnaby’s crowded cabinets. But when her host is stabbed to death, Cecily finds the confession of the supposed killer unconvincing. She pays attention to details—years of practice have taught her that the smallest particulars can distinguish a harmless herb from a deadly one—and in the case of Sir Barnaby’s murder, there are too many inconsistencies for her to ignore.
To discover the truth, Cecily must enter the world of the collectors, a realm where intellect is distorted by obsession and greed. As her pursuit of answers brings her closer to a killer, she risks being given a final resting place amid the bones that wait, silent and still, in the cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

My Review:

I adored this author’s Li Du series (start with Jade Dragon Mountain and prepare to be lost for several days), so when I noticed that she had moved from early 18th century China to early 18th century London for her latest, I couldn’t wait to see how that transition worked.

The fascinating thing about moving from Li Du to Cecily Kay and her former school friend Meacan Barlow is how strangely the two settings resemble each other. Li Du’s China in the early 18th century was a closed world – at least to the West. And Li Du is an outsider, an exiled imperial librarian on his way out of his own country.

The world of the scholarly, acquisitive, obsessive collectors of early 18th century London is just as much of a closed world, albeit in a completely different way. The collectors are a closed society, restricting membership, keeping all of their secrets locked up in their beautiful but often hidden presentation cabinets.

And Cecily and Meacan are also both outsiders to this world, which is exclusively male. They are both barely tolerated interlopers who exist on the fringes of this expensive and exclusive preserve.

Just like so many who are treated as outsiders in the worlds they inhabit, Cecily and Meacan are both keen observers of the situation in which they find themselves. They are ignored but intimate inhabitants of a world they are not believed to truly understand.

But of course they do. And frequently better than the men who are considered to be its prime movers and leading lights. Because they have no vested interest in maintaining the status quo – quite the reverse – they see situations and people with much clearer vision than the supposed cognoscenti.

And what they see is a confessed killer whose confession makes no sense whatsoever, and an investigation that is determined to pin the death of Barnaby Mayne on the most convenient suspect rather than seek out the real murderer – who must be one of the wealthy and influential collectors themselves.

A killer who is content to have the official investigation look elsewhere – but unwilling to countenance two amateurs poking their noses into his crimes.

Escape Rating A+: The world of the collectors was absolutely fascinating, just by itself. For context, this was the time period when the infamous Elgin Marbles were essentially looted from Athens and shanghaied to England.

While Lord Elgin’s looting of the Parthenon was on rather a grand scale, the society of collectors, of whom the late (and fictional) Barnaby Mayne was one of the leading lights, did the same thing, not quite on the same scale, all over the world.

Those that were capable went on their own expeditions of acquisition – or theft if you prefer – while others sponsored, basically, treasure hunters and tomb robbers to commit their thievery for them.

The entire concept manages to be both the start of the great museums we have today and utterly appalling at the same time.

As fascinated as I was by the setting for this story, it was Cecily and Meacan who really captured my attention and held it to the end. The way that their minds worked, and the way that they worked together to solve the murder, felt like it ripped the veil off of the usual portrayal of women of this period – a time period which borders on the Regency. Because in this story we see both how the men of this closed society – and the men of officialdom – see these two women and are able to contrast that with how they perceive themselves and the world around them..

On the one hand, they often play the roles that the world expects them to play. They are quiet and decorous and studying subjects considered fit for ladies – if barely. While on the other hand they see a great deal, know even more, and are caught in the position where they have to pretend to be one thing while secretly being another.

And while earning a living in Meacan’s case or maintaining a fragile independence in Cecily’s. They inhabit their era in a subversive way that allows us to see ourselves in them – and rail at the limitations they face.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne manages to be both an atmospheric and immersive piece of historical fiction, every bit as meticulously detailed as the labels on Barnaby Mayne’s cabinets, while also giving us two marvelously drawn female protagonists in Cecily and Meacan. All wrapped around an intricately twisted mystery that holds the reader’s attention to the very end.

Review: City of Ink by Elsa Hart

Review: City of Ink by Elsa HartCity of Ink (Li Du Novels #3) by Elsa Hart
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Li Du #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Following the enthralling 18th century Chinese mysteries Jade Dragon Mountain and White Mirror, comes the next Li Du adventure in Whisper of Ink.

Li Du was prepared to travel anywhere in the world except for one place: home. But to unravel the mystery that surrounds his mentor’s execution, that’s exactly where he must go.

Plunged into the painful memories and teeming streets of Beijing, Li Du obtains a humble clerkship that offers anonymity and access to the records he needs. He is beginning to make progress when his search for answers buried in the past is interrupted by murder in the present.

The wife of a local factory owner is found dead, along with a man who appears to have been her lover, and the most likely suspect is the husband. But what Li Du’s superiors at the North Borough Office are willing to accept as a crime of passion strikes Li Du as something more calculated. As past and present intertwine, Li Du’s investigations reveal that many of Beijing’s residents ― foreign and Chinese, artisan and official, scholar and soldier ― have secrets they would kill to protect.

When the threats begin, Li Du must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice to discover the truth in a city bent on concealing it, a city where the stroke of a brush on paper can alter the past, change the future, prolong a life, or end one.

My Review:

Like its absolutely marvelous predecessors, Jade Dragon Mountain and The White Mirror, City of Ink is an immersive journey into 18th century China that pulls the reader all the way in and doesn’t let go even after the end.

In other words, I finished this last night and I still have a terrible book hangover. A part of me is with the storyteller Hamza, still following Li Du around Beijing in search of solutions, both to the seemingly sordid murder that has his current attention and his quest to find justice for his friend and mentor, whose earlier crimes sent Li Du into exile before the beginning of his story (at least to us) in Jade Dragon Mountain.

As City of Ink begins, Li Du has been back in Beijing for two years. At the end of The White Mirror it was obvious that he was planning to turn back towards home, and he has done so But his exile is now 9 years in the past, and events in the capital have moved on from where they were when he left.

His beloved library is no more – or at least it is no longer staffed by librarians like Li Du. His wife divorced him in the wake of his exile, and even though that exile was rescinded by a grateful emperor at the end of Jade Dragon Mountain, his marriage is over, as is his career.

We return to this world to find Li Du as an overqualified clerk in a lowly office, assisting his supervisor (and cousin) by performing all of the clerical work that the other man has no desire to do. As overqualified as Li Du is for the job, it leaves him plenty of time to surreptitiously search other offices for documents relating to the crime his mentor was accused of. Li Du has discovered that the man was innocent – and needs to prove it – if only to his own satisfaction.

After two years he believes he has reached the end of the trail. He has found the man who links all of the other conspirators in that long-ago treason. Or at least links all of the others except his old friend. But his confrontation with the man proves unsatisfactory, leaving Li Du at loose ends.

His interest is taken up by what at first seems like a simple murder case. It is the job of his office to investigate crimes before turning the evidence over to the magistrates, and this crime seems simple enough. A man and a woman are found dead in a locked room at the site of her husband’s business. It looks like the husband found them in flagrante delicto and killed them both in a drunken rage. Under these particular circumstances, the crime will be forgiven.

But Li Du, as usual, finds that all is not as it initially seems. The husband, after all, believes that he would at least remember murdering his wife and her lover, no matter how drunk he was. And he was very, very drunk, but he does not remember committing murder.

Li Du, frustrated in his inability to find justice for his old friend, becomes determined to seek out justice in this case. And refuses to let go no matter how often he is first requested and then ordered to turn it over to the magistrate. Where the magistrate sees the later suicide of the husband as proof of his guilt, Li Du merely sees it as proof that the prison guards can be bribed – only because they can be.

Just as with the cases in both Jade Dragon Mountain and The White Mirror, Li Du is left to navigate the conflicting possibilities of not just who benefits from these particular murders, but also who benefits from covering them up.

And finds himself led right back to the place where he began, unravelling the mystery that left his old friend convicted of a treason that he certainly did not commit.

Escape Rating A: I started this on the plane from California, and wasn’t ready to let it go when I landed. And I’m still not.

Usually when I get really invested in a mystery series, it’s because of the characters. But when I get this invested in a fantasy or science fiction series, it is often all about the worldbuilding. The Li Du series are unusual for me in that it isn’t about the characters, it’s about the immersiveness of the world.

This is not to say that I don’t like Li Du, because I do. But he is also a bit of a cypher – or perhaps an onion whose outer skin has just begun to peel back. In his exile, he became extremely wary of revealing much of himself to much of anyone – and that is even more true in his return to Beijing. He is currently hiding much of his light under his bushel basket, and as a consequence the reader only sees bits of his true self peek out.

But the world, the recreation of early-18th century China, sucks the reader right in and doesn’t let go. This is one of those books where you see the sights, smell the smells, and feel the cobbles under your feet just as Li Du does.

City of Ink, as well as the first book, Jade Dragon Mountain, are very much political mysteries. While Li Du is always following the investigator’s first premise, “Who benefits?”, he is best when he does so in an urban environment redolent with politics and the stink of political corruption. His ability to solve the crime relies on not just his intelligence but also his knowledge of the way that things work in the world that he used to inhabit – that of the Imperial court.

That the catchphrase “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” was not said until more than a century after this series takes place, and half a world away at that, does not change the applicability of the axiom. In City of Ink, it is up to Li Du’s dogged persistence to figure out whose corruption lies at the heart of this case, and whose power is determined to cover it up.

This is a world that I can’t wait to step back into. May Li Du’s journeys long continue!

Review: The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

Review: The White Mirror by Elsa HartThe White Mirror (Li Du Novels #2) by Elsa Hart
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Li Du #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on September 6th 2016
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In The White Mirror, the follow-up to Elsa Hart’s critically acclaimed debut, Jade Dragon Mountain, Li Du, an imperial librarian and former exile in 18th century China, is now an independent traveler. He is journeying with a trade caravan bound for Lhasa when a detour brings them to a valley hidden between mountain passes. On the icy planks of a wooden bridge, a monk sits in contemplation. Closer inspection reveals that the monk is dead, apparently of a self-inflicted wound. His robes are rent, revealing a strange symbol painted on his chest.
When the rain turns to snow, the caravan is forced to seek hospitality from the local lord while they wait for the storm to pass. The dead monk, Li Du soon learns, was a reclusive painter. According to the family, his bizarre suicide is not surprising, given his obsession with the demon world. But Li Du is convinced that all is not as it seems. Why did the caravan leader detour to this particular valley? Why does the lord’s heir sleep in the barn like a servant? And who is the mysterious woman traveling through the mountain wilds?
Trapped in the snow, surrounded by secrets and an unexplained grief that haunts the manor, Li Du cannot distract himself from memories he’s tried to leave behind. As he discovers irrefutable evidence of the painter’s murder and pieces together the dark circumstances of his death, Li Du must face the reason he will not go home and, ultimately, the reason why he must.

My Review:

jade dragon mountain by elsa hartIn this second story of the travels of Li Du, exiled Imperial Librarian, he has traveled far from the Court he left behind. But even in this remote mountain valley, it is still very much with him, and not just in his bittersweet memories.

At the end of the marvelous Jade Dragon Mountain, Li Du leaves China intending to travel to Lhasa. Even though his exile has been revoked after the services he renders to the Emperor in that tale, he still feels the urge to travel.

But the further he gets from his home, the more he longs for it. And the more that the mysteries he left behind beckon him to return.

Before that can happen, if it can happen, Li Du must first confront the mysteries that have arisen on his journey. His caravan has been taken off the beaten path, to a remote mountain village, for no reason that he can determine.

And as they reach their destination, Li Du finds himself in the middle of another murder mystery. Just as in Jade Dragon Mountain, Li Du has found another dead priest. But this time, the priest he has found is a Tibetan monk and not a Jesuit priest.

Not that there isn’t a Jesuit involved in this mess, because there is. But this time the Westerner is neither the victim nor the perpetrator. He is lost on a mission of his own. And he is just plain lost.

As the valley is covered in snow, the caravan is stuck waiting for the thaw. And Li Du finds himself incapable of letting the matter rest. The locals want to believe that the bizarre death of the priest is suicide, in spite of many, many clues that make that verdict a bit difficult to swallow. But no one wants to talk about murder.

Except Li Du, and his friend the storyteller Hamza. Li Du may be in pursuit of the truth, but Hamza seems to be looking for a good story. And he tells a bunch of them as he assists his friend.

At first, it seems as if this village murder is a local crime for local reasons. It is all too obvious that someone has designs on the local landowner, his holdings and his pretty wife. There’s a ready made villain, but not one who would have had a reason to kill the more than a bit crazy priest.

Li Du is forced to look far far afield for the reasons behind this crime. He may have left the Imperial Court, but its intrigues have found him. It is up to him to solve the crime before it claims more victims, or before the snow melts and he is forced to leave it all behind.

Escape Rating A-: This story started a bit slower for me than the utterly awesome Jade Dragon Mountain. In the end, I enjoyed The White Mirror very much indeed, but I missed the machinations of the court that permeated the action in the first book. The more this story reached out beyond its remote mountain setting, the faster it flew and the more I loved it.

There are so many delicious red herrings scattered through this snowy landscape. There is some obvious skullduggery going on between the landowner, his wife and his cousin. In that piece of the story there’s a fascinating amount of information about the way that the Dalai Lama and other Lamas are chosen. And how easily that process can be manipulated for both personal and political ends.

At first, it seems as if the current mystery is part of a conspiracy to make the wrong boy a lama, and a different but  equally wrong boy the heir to the household. It’s tragic that both young men have found themselves in situations to which they are not suited, and part of the solution to the crime allows them an opportunity to figure out who they are really meant to be.

But the mystery in The White Mirror, just like the one in Jade Dragon Mountain, involves wheels within wheels, and plots surrounded by counterplots. By the end of the story, we discover that no one is quite who they initially pretended to be. Removing their masks and discovering their true loyalties is what allows Li Du to finally determine not just who murdered the monk, but also why it was done. And just how far the tentacles spread.

And as he unravels the tangled threads, he also unravels the tangle of his own life. Not that he finds a solution to the issues that drove him into exile, but that he finally learns that the only way he can truly solve that mystery is to return to where it all began. He turns for home.

Review: Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart

Review: Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa HartJade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on September 1st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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On the mountainous border of China and Tibet in 1708, a detective must learn what a killer already knows: that empires rise and fall on the strength of the stories they tell.
Li Du was an imperial librarian. Now he is an exile. Arriving in Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border, he is surprised to find it teeming with travelers, soldiers, and merchants. All have come for a spectacle unprecedented in this remote province: an eclipse of the sun commanded by the Emperor himself.
When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in the home of the local magistrate, blame is hastily placed on Tibetan bandits. But Li Du suspects this was no random killing. Everyone has secrets: the ambitious magistrate, the powerful consort, the bitter servant, the irreproachable secretary, the East India Company merchant, the nervous missionary, and the traveling storyteller who can't keep his own story straight.
Beyond the sloping roofs and festival banners, Li Du can see the mountain pass that will take him out of China forever. He must choose whether to leave, and embrace his exile, or to stay, and investigate a murder that the town of Dayan seems all too willing to forget.

I absolutely loved this book. I was swept away instantly, and remained fully immersed in the author’s world until the very last, reluctantly turned, page.

Jade Dragon Mountain reminds me of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, but upon analysis, I am not sure why. That I read The Name of the Rose 30 years ago does not help the comparison. But the feeling is still there.

While Rose has a library at its heart, the investigator in Jade, Li Du, is a librarian. And an exiled librarian at that, forced to leave his post at the Imperial Library in Beijing because he allowed a traitor to do research at the library. Li Du was never part of the conspiracy, he seems to have been a bit of collateral damage.

But he has found his calling as a scholar wanderer, roaming the roads and small villages of the Chinese Empire in 1708 to discover whether all the travel journals he read while at his post contain truth, or are composed mostly of hyperbole. In the middle of his wanderings he comes to remote Yunnan province in the southwestern portion of the Empire. Yunnan is one of the great tea producing regions of China, and it was in 18th century China as much as it is today.

Li Du comes to Dayan, the capital of the province, to check in with the local magistrate, as is required by his sentence of exile. Fortunately for Li Du, the magistrate of the province is his cousin. Unfortunately for Li Du, Dayan is about to receive an unprecedented visit from the Emperor who exiled him. The Emperor has predicted that there will be a lunar eclipse, visible in Dayan, in just a few days.

The prediction was made a year ago, in secret consultation with Jesuit astronomers. It takes an entire year to travel from Beijing to Dayan, but the Emperor considered the journey worth the investment of time. Yunnan Province has only recently been brought fully under the Manchu Empire, and there are still pockets of resistance. The ceremony of the fulfillment of the Emperor’s prediction will do much to showcase his divinity and the pre-eminence of his empire.

If the entire ceremony isn’t derailed by the death of one old Jesuit scholar, who has come to Dayan, like so many other foreigners, for a brief glimpse of the otherwise closed Celestial Empire. While everyone in the provincial palace is bent on sweeping the crime and the old man’s body under the carpet, Li Du is unwilling to let the truth rest in an untended grave.

Because Li Du, wandering scholar, is certain that the old priest was murdered. He is reluctantly, and with many threats of punishment, given 6 days to find the murderer before the Emperor arrives.

He has barely enough time to solve the case. The questions are the eternal ones, who benefits from this man’s death, and who benefits from covering it up, and most tellingly, who benefits from covering it up in the particular way that it is done. In the process of his investigation, Li Du finds motives upon motives, and a killer lurking in the most unlikely place.

And he very nearly does not find out enough.

Escape Rating A+: This story takes place at an absolutely fascinating point in history. In 1708, the Qing Dynasty, known more popularly in the West as the Manchu Dynasty, was in power. But the days of the previous dynasty, the Ming Dynasty, are still within living memory, although just barely. The Ming and their supporters still considered the Manchu barbarian outsiders, and there were still rebellious impulses. The Yunnan Province, while it had been part of China for centuries, had only been very loosely governed from Beijing until the later Manchu. The previous provincial royal family had been decimated, but they and their adherents were still around.

Also, the wealth of China and its markets was completely closed to the West at this point. The British East India Company was extremely powerful, and was absolutely salivating at the possibility of entering China to engage in their own unique brand of conquest through economic hegemony. The First Opium War is still in the future. Considering the way things were already going in India, resistance may have been futile, but it was well worth fighting.

So the story centers around one of the rare occasions when China was open, if not to the West, then at least to certain select Westerners who could pay tribute to the Emperor and make their case for more access. And because this festival is taking place in a far-flung province, there is even more opportunity than usual for nefarious double-dealings and attempts to change the state of affairs, or overthrow them all together. It is also an unprecedented opportunity for officials in the province to have a chance to catch the eye of the Emperor, and perhaps gain future influence and position back in the capital.

In other words, everyone is a stranger or an outsider, security is in disarray, and every man and woman is out for their own interests. It’s a great place for a murderer to hide in plain sight.

Li Du is both a fascinating and an enigmatic character. We know very little about him, only that he has been exiled from the capital for not being rigorous enough in his observations of researchers working in the library. But his exile has put him in the position of being both an insider and an outsider in his cousin’s province. Li Du knows the things that are supposed to be said in public, as opposed to what is known and believed in private, but he is also in a position where he doesn’t have to care. He’s already been punished.

He serves the truth. And he rightfully fears that if the death of the old Jesuit was murder, that sweeping his death under the carpet leaves a murderer on the loose. He is a dogged investigator, but he has no modern forensics to work with. So in the end, he studies the crime, it’s motives, and even more, the motives for covering it up. In the end, it is all about stories. Not just because his friend and assistant is a professional storytelling, but because it is the way that this crime is meant to tell a particular story in a particular way that leads to the killer.

That it just doesn’t lead far enough makes for a surprising, and surprisingly satisfying, conclusion to the mystery, and finally wraps all of the events and their motives into a neat little package.