Fascinating adventure January 15, 2017
To Conquer Heaven kept me up late and had me reaching for my e-reader several times throughout the day. Though it's a dense 370 pages--absolutely packed with details--I put it away in fewer than 48 hours. I'd say the book was a cross between a Dan Brown novel and an Indiana Jones adventure but Dan Brown never showed this level of mastery of English vocabulary and Indiana Jones's escapades never got this dark. There are hard consequences here, a fact I appreciated given the glut of formulaic, G-rated literary journeys today.
In the opening chapters we meet young, reserved, doctoral scholar Jeremy, a Canadian born to Chinese parents who is still trying to earn back their respect after a single night of debauchery in college. But he might be able to reverse his fate with a recent discovery: a document that may just pinpoint the location of one of the greatest archaeological finds of our age. He drops into Macau to rustle up financial backing from his former college roommate, Brett--a Texan born into money who disguises a neglected childhood with a brash attitude and politically incorrect humour. The linchpin to their mission of discovery is Saffiyah, an Egyptian daughter of famed archaeologists who is an expert on the First Emperor of China, and whose mentor, Jin, joins the expedition under an aura of mystery. The characters are unique, well drawn, likeable, and each has a secret to reveal as the story unfolds.
And so begins the quest. Each chapter is named after an animal sign in the Chinese zodiac and begins with a verse from Taoist teachings. About a quarter way through the book, the prose blossoms and gains confidence, and the narrative sweeps you up in the adventure. One of the highlights for me was the depiction of China--the awe of the protagonists upon arrival, the colossal yet intricate nature of the architecture, the reverence for tradition and customs very much alive today. Having grown up watching the iconic television series, 'Monkey', I was familiar with the legend and more than happy to go on this ride. Without giving anything away, I was also pleased with the twist surrounding a name, which I had picked up on thanks to my Arabic heritage.
You'll find some beautifully rendered images in this book ("The two old men were as still as the stone bench on which they sat, as though their lengthy communion with the element had turned them into statues."), a breadth of imagination and moments of thoughtful observation ("He looked down at the ponies' hooves pushing the earth by, as though by their effort alone, the world turned."), and powerful descriptions of mystic legends and magic ("His shout was a syllable so ancient and powerful that Saffiyah's mind instantly censored it."). You'll also find humour ("How is something authorised as 'feng shui compliant' he wondered. Is there a Chinese Ministry of Magic?"). Be prepared to have your heart broken, to learn something new and to go places you didn't expect to go.