Monday, March 3, 2014

The Two Sisters of Borneo by Ian Hamilton

The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee, #6)It would not surprise me to learn that Ian Hamilton’s books have inspired pilgrimages to Toronto’s vaunted houses of dim sum, as Hamilton is specific about locales and the particular delicacies to be enjoyed in each. Hamilton has a track record now with his sixth novel in the series, and we believe him when he talks about food, clothes, and hotels. This middle-aged white male author is merely channeling his inner young, Chinese, lesbian side and, to judge from reviews, little is as thrilling to the reading public.

The seeds of change in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series are coming to fruition. One of the more interesting things about this series is that the central characters are actually impacted by the world, and they must decide how to react. They encounter difficult challenges and, like most of us in the reading audience, succeed brilliantly at times in turning events to their advantage, and less well at other times. In this sixth installment of the Ava Lee series we begin to see a harder, more expedient Ava, who can be generous or ruthless but who is always calculating.

Some reviews I have seen mention that Ava shows a softer side of herself when with her “Uncle”, Chow Tung. Perhaps. I would argue that he is more family to her than her real family, which is a huge, intercontinental affair. Ava finds herself modeling her own decisions on his, assigning unequivocal “trust” to some people while all the while finely slicing the information they are privy to about her own life. Her lover, Maria, is aware of only the outlines of Ava’s professional life: the constant, sudden travel, the large, dispersed family connections, great wealth. Ava’s business partners May Ling and Amanda are aware of these things and a few more slices of Ava’s life. Only Uncle knew Ava’s full story: her doubts, her failings, her control, or lack of it.

The story takes a leap, in my mind at least, at the end of this episode to something quite different. We now have Ava explicitly aligned with Chinese mainland gangs that extend their reach throughout Asia. In the past, these links were shadowy background that passed through an enigmatic “Uncle” but with his passing, Ava is unquestionably front and center in the web of triad power. It is difficult to imagine where this might take us, though the next title in the series, due to be published January 2015, is called The King of Shanghai.

As I mentioned in an earlier review, Hamilton’s writing is strong, clever, and involving. He writes two scenes in this episode that illustrate masterful constructs of Chinese social society: the opening Hong Kong wedding and the closing funeral. If nothing else, these two events and Hamilton’s sociological exegesis of them are fascinating enough, but we have skin in the game. We are sad May Ling and her husband had to miss the eight-course wedding banquet and we marvel at Ava’s renting an entire restaurant for the mourners at Chow Tung’s funeral.

But just the characters in Hamilton’s series change in response to their environment, my own attitude towards Ava is shifting: from sympathy and support to a certain wariness. She is making choices now that make me question who she will become, where she will end up. If I sense a certain “breakneck” quality to the writing, and movement away from one kind of story to another, I am still willing to give Hamilton the benefit of the doubt. After all, one must change to live, and who is to say reading about Chinese triads won’t be just as fascinating? This is another good choice for Hamilton, a heretofore unexploited piece of the literary landscape for crime fiction. Good luck to him with the research, however, which I suspect will be even trickier than uncovering and exposing extravagant examples of international fraud.

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