This book is at times incredibly frustrating, at times very satisfying. It’s sold as a historical mystery, but I would argue that it creates its own subgenre as a crossover between a forensic procedural, heavy with scientific details and gore autopsy close-ups and a very complete manual of life in China Song Dynasty in the 12th century.
Think Kay Scarpetta, turn her into a man, into a Chinese man, make her wear a black silk bonnet, and throw her back to the Middle Ages to proceed to a postmortem autopsy. Without her fancy scientific instruments of course.
Still, there are many differences between this book’s main character and Kay Scarpetta. One of which is that the hero is probably the unluckiest man on earth at that period. Also Kay Scarpetta is likeable, whereas our hero is not really.
He’s a young man of 20, from a good, if not very wealthy family, and although he has studied medicine with a great master and is said to have a great intelligence and intuition, in everything but medicine he is so naive and stupid that you soon want to slap him. The first half of the book shows him getting more and more miserable as he loses his family, position, friends, money and dignity. He makes one stupid choice after another, and you can be sure that anyone he trusts at any time will betray him within a few hours or days. Even more frustrating, he doesn’t seem to learn from his errors. How can you then believe that he’s able to tell accurately the cause of death, thus earning himself the name of “corpse reader” and a reputation that will raise the emperor’s interest and make him an investigator to a very special and secret series of crimes committed close to the imperial palace?
If you don’t get too annoyed by the main character, the historical part of the book remains fascinating and well worth the read. Song dynasty in the 12th century was a period where China had a lot of threats but also a lot of creativity and artistic expression. Administration was very organized and it looked like quite a modern state. Garrido manages to bring this period alive and you almost can smell, feel, see what it was like back then (not all smells and sights were quite pleasant I’m afraid).
One last point: I was first drawn to this book by the French cover, that is a reproduction of a Song painting. But the English cover is totally unappealing to me and feels like a cheap B-movie from Hong Kong in the 1980s. I would never have picked up this book with the English cover! Would you?