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The Secrets of Jin-Shei
ISBN: 0060563419

By Alma Alexander
Review by: Heather Darcy

12/01/04

“Down in Linh-an, the great capital city, the lives of the women of the Imperial Court were governed by endless rounds of etiquette and protocol. There were people to see, petitioners to receive; the higher-ranked Princesses and concubines held their own court and were expected to grace public ceremonies with their presence….”

The Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander is a powerful new novel set in an imaginary ancient Chinese empire called Syai. One facet of the Syia’s complex culture is the jin-shei sisterhood. Once a woman offers of the bond of sisterhood to another and it’s accepted, the pledge can never be broken. The two remain sisters for the rest of each other’s lives. There is a great deal of happiness and love in this bond, but there’s often peril. Needless to say, once a woman is pledged to another, the bond changes their lives forever.

There’s also a secret language for woman called jin-ashu. It has been passed down from mother to daughter since the beginning of time. It permits women to speak to each other openly about their secret inner lives without involving men. I found myself wishing at times that in today’s society such a language existed. Would it bring women closer together or make their lives more complicated?

There are eight main characters whose lives are detailed in the story. They are all woven together through in the inescapable bond of jin-shei. Anyone can become a member of the sisterhood; wealth or royal status isn’t necessary, as in the case of Tai, daughter of a skilled, but poor, seamstress. Tai is exhilarated when Antia, heir to the throne of the Empire of Syai, offers the bond of sisterhood. Anita is charmed by Tai’s artistic vision and the fact that she helps her see things in a different way. Soon, Tai is whisked away to the Great Temple to be with Antia. That summer, the course of many lives is changed—and the future of the empire itself—and Tai’s faith and courage is put to the test.

Tai’s life becomes entwined with the other characters in the story. There’s the jealous Liudan, who eventually becomes Empress; Yuet, a magical healer; Nhia, the sage with a pure heart; Khaelin, a scholar, whose quest for knowledge involves her in dealings with darker forces; Qiaan, who was adopted by a palace guard; Tammary, a gypsy whose with a secret ancestry; and Xaforn, the fighter/warrior, who’s ready to give her life at a moment’s notice for what she believes in.

Alexander’s epic novel is filled with magic and fantasy that’s enchanting on many levels. She skillfully weaves in and out of different plotlines, all of which are fascinating stories on their own. I believe this is her first novel published in America, and I can only hope there are many more to follow.

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