Xianggu has an inauspicious start in life, with a mother who loves her and a father who doesn't. Sold to a slaver at the turn of the nineteenth century, Xianggu finds herself sold on to a madam who runs a large brothel on a boat. Not to the taste of Madam Xu, Xianggu is consigned to the kitchen as a servant, fetching and carrying food, tea and other things to the high status prostitutes and Madam Xu herself. She soon realises that the way out of her servitude is to learn how Madam Xu conducts business and so she shadows her to learn the trade, for it is a trade, and trade equals money and money equals freedom.
A pirate raid on her harbour and the boat leads Xianggu to a new life, and one of a different kind of freedom. Attracting the attention of the leader of the raiding party, Xianggu finds herself first a protector, then a husband and a new trade - piracy.
It is rare that I will read a novel based on a different culture to my own, beyond Christendom, but I did enjoy this novel. It is easy to forget that while Napoleon and Wellington were fighting over Europe, the rest of the world was going about its own business. And as this is based on a true story, it opens up a view of the world as a whole.
Autumn Bardot is a pen name and I haven't managed to find out more about her, what brought her to wanting to write about China having also written about the real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. The two don't really marry beyond both having a basis in fact. One has to admire her for finding a story that it is unlikely many in western Europe will know anything of - Chinese and Vietnamese pirates.
And the novel is written well. OK, a quick basic proof to remove the duplications in such as speech marks wouldn't have gone amiss, but the foundation of the writing is sound. The description is vivid and very eastern in feel; one never senses that this is a world that the author isn't immersed in. There are western terms used, most likely to translate the Chinese or Vietnamese which sound a little jarring but unlikely have an alternative that works. 'Boss' and 'squad' sound very modern but I doubt there is another translation. And some names are translated from the Chinese to make them accessible such as Bright Pearl whereas others, like Mei, are left in their native Chinese (Mei means beautiful).
If you like Bruce Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Monkey, Mulan or any other southeast Asian fiction, you'll love the authenticity of this novel.
It is rather 'adult' descriptive in places, Xianggu is a prostitute, after all, but it is worth giving it a chance.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Louise Adam