Sunday, August 30, 2015

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

fpo  Camilla, the Heavenly Songbird with the angelic voice, is a skeleton women - a beautiful woman trained to seduce men, uncover their secrets, and if necessary, reduce them to corpses. She was plucked from an orphanage as a child and groomed to be the perfect spy. Her mission: to discover the secrets of the number one gangster in town, Master Lung, for her boss Big Brother Wang, the number two gangster in town. At the tender age of nineteen, Camilla has become a celebrated singer in Shanghai and Master Lung's mistress. Although she has been Master Lung's mistress for nearly a year, she has yet to complete her mission and Big Brother Wang is becoming impatient. Complicating matters are the amorous advances of two other men and the arrival of two women Camilla suspects to also be skeleton women, the mysterious magician Shadow and the androgynous journalist Rainbow Chang. But Camilla is not to be deterred. Using Sun Tzu's The Art of War to guide her, Camilla is determined to navigate her way through the choppy waters she finds herself in.

Skeleton Women was not quite what I expected. I was all set for a femme fatale thriller set in 1930s (or so) Shanghai, China. I'm not exactly sure what this is, but it wasn't that. There were lots of good ideas in this book, but they didn't go anywhere. Rainbow Chang and Shadow are good examples of this. Shadow is set up to be a skeleton woman to rival Camilla but she never is really much of a challenge to Camilla. All she appears to want is to become rich and famous. As for Rainbow Chang, much is made of her androgynous style of dressing but why this is an important detail is never explained or used to any effect. Then there are the multiple men who profess their undying love for Camilla. None of it ever felt real. They seemed more to exist to validate Camilla's status as a skeleton woman capable of seducing men.

The biggest problem with Skeleton Women was the tone.  If she fails to fulfill her mission, Big Brother Wang might decide Camilla no longer serves any purpose and have her killed. If Master Lung discovers her mission he will definitely kill her, so for Camilla the stakes are high. Nevertheless, between the constant quoting from the Art of War, that Camilla approached everyone and every situation like it was a game of chess, and every other man falling in love with Camilla,  it wasn't always clear if this was intended to be a comedy, a satire, or a realistic story. I think this story would have benefited from having a character that challenged Camilla's point of view. Without such a character to contradict her (or to contrast and compare her to), Camilla often seemed less like an adult women caught in a battle between two dangerous men, and more like a child playing a dress up game where she is the most popular and beautiful girl in town. I just couldn't tell if I should be taking Camilla seriously, or laughing at her blunders, or what.

I'm glad I read this if only for the sake that I wanted to try something new. One of my goals this year was to read more writers who were not from the United States or the UK (because historically most of the writers I read have come from those two countries). In particular, I have read very little from Asian (or even Asian-American) writers. This doesn't quite work for me but there are several others waiting to be read in my TBR pile. Better luck next time.

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