Mags L. Halliday Warring States (2005)
I had quite a poor impression of this one prior to this - my second or possibly third re-reading - recalling Warring States as either impenetrable, or merely a reconditioned version of one of those Doctor Who adventures in which a series of scrapes leads to the grand finale of everyone meeting up in the town square just in time for our hero to ram the magic quantum sink splodger of destiny up his own arse, reversing the timestream and saving the day. Happily my impression turns out to have been completely wrong, although I can nevertheless see how it came to be formed, even without accounting for the fact of my having had considerably less of a working attention span back in 2005. I seem to recall beginning Warring States two or three times before achieving the momentum to get all the way through, and in recent years I've put this down to it being a novel which was published more or less without editing or even proofreading; except I can't remember who told me that so I'm not sure how true it may be, and in any case I've only noticed one significant typo somewhere near the beginning.
Anyway, for whatever reason, Warring States was a lot more enjoyable this time around, and with hindsight some of my initial criticisms have been similar to those levelled at my own Faction Paradox novel, Against Nature*, specifically that it's impenetrable with no clear indication of who is doing what or why they're doing it. Whilst I'm inclined to suggest that this sort of thing is only a problem when one can't be bothered to read the actual words which appear as print on the page, I must admit I still found it occasionally difficult to retain just what motivates Cousin Octavia and the others, what objective drives them forward through the narrative.
It's not so much that these details are glossed over as that, I would say, the level of descriptive detail pouring from the narrative is rich and quite intense, demanding that one pay attention, and so some elements become muddied here and there. That said, I suppose the setting of the Boxer Uprising does not easily lend itself to the sort of passages in which one might pause to catch breath. However, through the use of a special technique of thinking about the words as I read them, I was able to keep the important details in mind - that Cousin Octavia is seeking the quality of immortality associated with the mummified relic from the Warring States era of ancient Chinese history, for one example; and so ultimately my main criticism of this novel is that I probably could have done with a little more background detail, specifically with regard to the Boxer Uprising, the Warring States era of ancient Chinese history, George Morrison and so on. The narrative seems to assume one will be familiar with the setting and historical details, but then apparently I myself did the same thing despite my best efforts to keep everyone in the loop. Never mind.
Leaving aside such criticisms, this is actually a fairly rewarding novel, or at least certainly more so than I realised. There are some nice ideas - particularly a sort of written equivalent of that stuff in Chinese action films where people run up walls and the like. There is a lot going on here, and a lot which invites the reader to think about just what may or may not be happening. My initial reservations included a minor objection based upon this being the Faction Paradox novel which wasn't really about anything, just people in skull masks having an adventure in time and space. Thankfully, I also seem to have been wrong on that score, although what Warring States is about seems dependent on some understanding of Chinese folklore, yin and yang, the union of opposing forces, and all that sort of business. At least I think it does.
So in summary, this is a much better novel than at least some may realise, but you really do need to pay attention because it isn't going to do all the work for you.
*: Which you need to buy if you haven't already done so. Don't worry about reading it. Just buy it.