Review: The Balance of Heaven and Earth (Magistrate Zhu Mysteries #1) by Laurence Westwood

Rating: 10/10

Synopsis:

I have been unable to write a judgement that does not seem to offend my conscience, or indeed Heaven, in some manner. Because I do not wish to influence your thinking unduly, I have destroyed all my personal papers and notes in regard to this dispute, preferring you to start afresh. Forgive me for this. All I ask is that you consider and examine Jade Moon most carefully before coming to a decision. I find her fascinating and unsettling in equal measure, and fear the consequences of a wrongful judgement. I will say no more.

My sincerest best wishes to you and your family,

Magistrate Qian
Fifth District, Chengdu Prefecture
1st day of the 2nd Moon, 1085

So ends the letter of welcome (and of warning) to Magistrate Zhu, newly arrived in the remote border town of Tranquil Mountain. He has travelled far from his extensive family estates on the outskirts of Kaifeng – the glorious Song Dynasty capital – hoping to find atonement for past mistakes.

Yet he quickly discovers that Tranquil Mountain is anything but tranquil. The town is beset with simmering tensions since the death of his predecessor. Before Magistrate Zhu even has time to accustom himself to his inexperienced and wayward constabulary and the lowliness of his new surroundings, there is a mysterious murder, rumours of ghosts and blood-thirsty bandits out on the streets, and a disturbing kidnapping to solve – as well as the tragic and tangled legal circumstances of the local heroine Jade Moon to unravel.

For the balance of Heaven and Earth to be maintained, and to prevent catastrophe coming to Tranquil Mountain, Magistrate Zhu is well aware that not a single injustice can be allowed to stand. As he struggles to reach the correct judgements, he realises he has no choice but to offer up his career and perhaps even his own life for the greater good. And, in so doing, he discovers that as Jade Moon’s fate rests in his hands, so his fate ultimately rests in hers.

Review

Thank you to Laurence for sending me a ARC of this wonderful novel.

This novel is the reason I want to see big publishers such as Harpercollins, Canelo, Angry Robot, Orbit do more settings in China, be it historical, or sci-fi, or alternate history. Or more historical fiction. Here I am, as a reader that wants to see more locations in historical fiction, thinking of a novel being written about maybe the Han Dynasty. And here comes this novel based on the Song Dynasty.

This novel has a simplistic plot and I prefer it that way. Most Traditional Chinese stories are complex to understand. And Laurence has done a fantastic job in simplifying the names. I can only imagine that they were difficult to translate into.

It is a historical mystery series similar to the celebrated cases of Judge Dee, who is similar to the Tang Dynasty figure, Di Renjie, who served as the chancellor of the Tang and Zhou Dynasties. It is the Chinese version of case crime novels so to say. Imagine Sherlock Holmes for a moment, and you get the idea.

The world-building, the characters, the setting, the description, the research, all of it has been done to a meticulous level. You feel as if it immerses you in Song China. You feel and see many character’s regrets, motivations, and the struggles of power conflict. I wished to see more of Jade Moon’s maturity and to understand more of her character. I felt that Magistrate Zhu is one of those incorruptible people that you cannot bribe with. People like him are very rare. One thing I liked about the novel was the plot’s setting. That a peaceful village has a disturbance. I felt its similar to China’s history. It builds an empire before downfall happens and is a constant repetitive motif in Chinese history. This happens a lot throughout the novel. So just watch out for any references made about empires and barbarians and the law. And civilization.

The novel’s approach doesn’t stifle you with complicated names or grand candour or anything of that sort. It’s short, it’s simple, it’s direct. You will get to know characters such as the infamous Deng Brothers (please do read their parts) and Horse. Horse is a character that if you’re familiar with watching Chinese/Korean historical dramas, resembles that a lot.

This could easily be a Netflix series. I can imagine a great TV show being made of this. I can’t wait to see what other mysteries come up. Though I would like to see Magistrate Zhu dealing with Japanese Pirates or travelling to Josean at the request of the Empire. This is a solid novel. If you want more diverse settings, if you want a Chinese historical fiction novel, then read this and buy it now.

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