Jun 28, 2012

Book Review: Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip
>Title: Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip
Paperback; May 25, 2012; Kensington Publishing
Source: author, for review
Objective rating: 4.5/5

About the book:In Mingmei Yip's novel set in 1930s Shanghai, Skeleton Women refer to women who are trained spies, beautiful assassins and courtesans who seduce their male victims in order to eventually turn them into skeletons of death.

And yet, the orphan Camilla, who was trained to be such a deceiver by her boss Master Wang, finds it difficult to dispose of Wang's rival Master Lung as she is ordered to do. She must first find out all Lung's financial secrets and where he stores his important papers and bank books. This is gang rivalry after all, and Wang intends to be the top man in Shanghai after defeating and disposing of his main rival, through his master spy, Camilla.

There are two other well known Skeleton Women in the book - a gossip columnist Rainbow Chang and a magician, Shadow. Shadow and Camilla, whose talent is as a singer known as the Heavenly Songstress, compete to be the best known celebrity for talent and beauty and both rely on Rainbow Chang to promote them in her newspaper column.

The novel is about the relationship between these skeleton women and about Camilla's increasing discomfort with her role as a virtual slave to Master Wang to spy and then assassinate, and being in the middle of the tug of war between Wang and Master Lung, who she must keep deceiving while she ferrets out his financial and gangland activities. There are other conflicts, namely her personal love life and growing emotional attachment to another, younger man.

My comments:The author quotes extensively from two Chinese classics by Sun Tzu, written more than 2,000 years ago - The Art of War and the essay The Thirty-Six Stratagems, which is described as "an essay used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics, war, as well as in civil interaction, often through unorthodox or deceptive means." Although Sun Tzu probably wrote for men, the author's character Camilla knows these works very well and uses the advice and strategies for her own means.

The novel is peppered throughout with Chinese sayings or aphorisms that reflect Camilla's own dilemmas, her observation of people or situations, and her plan of action.

Some of the sayings:
"If you pay enough, you can make a dead man turn a millstone." 
"When the rabbits are caught, the hounds are cooked." 
"...tiehan rouqing, an iron man with tender sentiments."
What also made this book enjoyable to read was the author's frequent inclusion of famous Chinese poetry and songs, words that mirror or reflect her feelings or situation. I wish I could include some of them here, but there are too many.

One question that I do have about the plot: If Camilla is known as a skeleton woman, why is she kept and trusted by her patron Master Lung, whom she has vowed to destroy? Even though he has his bodyguard search her every time she enters his bedroom, still he must have been taking a big chance!
I also liked that Camilla gradually changes from being callous and unfeeling to developing genuine love and feelings of human friendship as her life story goes on. How she deals with the twin rocks of disaster between which she is caught is the tension that also kept my interest in the novel.

A book I highly recommend for those interested in women's fiction, historical fiction, romance, and the poetry, and some of the classics of Chinese literature.

Learn more about the author at her websiteMingmei Yip and on her blog.


Harvee said...

I understand Sun Tzu's classic work much better now, The Art of War. Thanks, Mingmei!

Suko said...

I never heard of skeleton women before. This book sounds quite intriguing. Very nice review, Harvee.

Yvonne said...

I hadn't heard about this book before but this is a great review and you have my interest!

Anna said...

Sounds like a good one. I just read a book set in Shanghai during WWII, but I've never read one set there during the early 1900s.

mingmei yip said...

Thanks Harvee for the great review!

To answer your question "why Master Lung still wants Camilla even he knows she's a skeleton woman." Skeleton woman is exciting and challenging to conquer, just like today's -- same as in the past -- rich men desiring celebrity women. But the most important is because Lung doesn't know she's a spy trying to eliminate him.
Happy reading!

Staci said...

This sounds very very interesting!!!

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