The Bottom Line: A brilliantly drawn historical thriller set in 18th century China that delivers ample doses of action, danger and even romance.
Plenty of historical suspense novels claim to transport readers back to a specific time and place in history, only to fail miserably in either research or execution. The second entry in Jefferson Flanders’ Tarkingtons series excels on both counts.
The title refers to the book’s hero, Calvin Tarkington, the American merchant from Boston who first appeared in Flanders’ excellent novel set in France, The Republic of Virtue. This time, Tarkington arrives in Canton in 1795. He enters a China that is intimidating, dangerous and wary of foreigners. It’s also exotic and for the most clever of explorers, accessible.
And yet Calvin’s arrival has been foretold. The novel’s opening chapter sets a 20-year-old beauty, Eldedei, with a fortune teller who says that she will meet a tall man with eyes the color of blue jade: “This stranger shall cross the four seas. He shall see many marvels in his travels, marvels few men see. And a white deer follows him. That has been shown to me clearly.”
That fateful meeting will be a long time coming, as Calvin is brought to Peking to face trial on murder charges after witnessing the assassination of an Imperial investigator in the country’s lone trading port. In that respect, Calvin’s plight has never been more relevant. American citizens are still routinely imprisoned in a variety of countries around the world on trumped-up charges, including a few recent high-profile cases. That gives the book a ripped-from-the-headlines quality that makes it feel surprisingly urgent.
While Calvin Tarkington is a worthy character to build a series around, it’s one of the book’s antagonists that really steals the show. Hawk is a bannerman (if you’re not up on your Chinese History, bannermen were elite soldiers in the Qing dynasty military) who has been ordered to follow a mandarin named Chang. He’s highly observant, slippery and ruthless, and certainly worthy of all the ink he receives.
Early on, The Boston Trader establishes a sense of wonder and mystery that is often missing in historical thrillers, and that quality remains consistent throughout. As a result, the images we experience through Calvin’s eyes are ones that will stay with you long after finishing it.
In terms of bonus content, Flanders includes ample notes that provide valuable historical context and even notes on the translations of names and places in English.