Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Book Review: House of 8 Orchids

TK Starr is here to review House of 8 Orchids by James Thayer. The book debuts today in paperback from Thomas & Mercer. 

In 1912, John and William Wade, the young sons of the American Consul for China are “shanghaied” off the streets of Chungking and held in the house of the Master Criminal Eunuch Chang. This is how Chang generally “recruits” members for his gang. In the case of the Wade boys however, Chang considers them his sons and raises them accordingly.  

Twenty-five years later, John is Chang’s main enforcer and sees nothing wrong with stealing, maiming or murdering in the name of Chang. As a Caucasian, John can go places Chang cannot and commit frauds and thefts that Chang would otherwise not be able to accomplish. John has apparently never questioned either the morality or legality of Chang’s schemes or orders. On the other hand, William has developed into an artist, an activity that Chang fully supports, as well as a talented forger. However, William has never taken to the more brutal side of Chang’s dealings. In fact, unlike John, William has always chafed a bit under the collar of his refined prison. After one particular egregious crime, William has had enough. While John continues to defend Chang, William plots his betrayal and escape. As might be expected, not all goes well and the chase is on. John follows William.  Chang is close behind.

 James Thayer’s latest book, the House of 8 Orchids, takes place during a particular turbulent period in pre-Communist China.  At the time, the country was being torn apart internally from fighting among gangs, warlords and the “ruling“ government, and externally from an encroaching Japan.  Adding to the chaotic mix was the United States arming the rebels and patrolling the Yangtze River while proclaiming official neutrality.  James Thayer’s choice of time and locale certainly lends itself to all sorts of mayhem.

And there’s plenty of mayhem to be had here. The author’s biography indicates that many of his other books have been optioned for films. This makes sense as the House of 8 Orchids reads more like an action movie than a book. The scenes move from clash to predicament and back again, rather like a Mission Impossible or James Bond adventure. The short quieter scenes in between seem more like transitions to the next conflict than insight into the deeper motivation of the characters. As with most action/adventure tales, this story is high on action, low on interaction and high on background description, low on character development. For instance, John suddenly “sees the light” about Chang after 25 years of loyalty. It is unclear why. He does chance to view an old photo of his family that seemingly stirs some memories and doubt. But is that enough? He then follows William out of brotherly love and concern and meets a woman who tells him Chang is really a bad dude, not the benevolent benefactor John has believed. John then seems to have a rather abrupt epiphany. What? The guy he’s been stealing, maiming, and murdering  for all these years is really a criminal?   Who would have thought. 

But complex character incentive and situational believability is not what this book is about. It’s a story meant to entertain.  Just hush the inner critic and read the book for escape and pleasure. The narrative is descriptive and the story flows. It can be a bit graphic and gruesome, but probably not much more than any other book or video game of its genre.  At a concise 281 pages, it should make the long hours of a flight pass quickly. 

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  1. This sounds like an intriguing book! I love the title! Thank you for sharing!