cover image Jade Stalk

Jade Stalk

Jonathan Fast, Author Dutton Books $18.95 (271p) ISBN 978-0-525-24650-3

Huai-i, the protagonist of this diverting historical novel set in old China, has a talent for boxing, but lacking tenacity and a good teacher he can never be the real thing. Instead, he learns to be a show boxer and a confidence man. As the result of his chicanery, he's caught up in the slow, cruel wheels of Middle Kingdom justice and faces a horrible death at the hands of the public executioner. He is saved by his one genuine talent: he's extraordinarily endowed for love-making, a fact that comes to the attention of Princess T'ai p'ing, fifth and favorite child of the tyrannical Empress Wu. The princess conceives the idea of bestowing Huai-i as a male concubine upon her mother, a frustrated celibate of 21 years' standing. The boxer's basic cowardice, the princess believes, makes him exceptionally well qualified for this role because he will be afraid to step out of line. All goes well with the princess's plan except for one thing: the empress falls in love with the boxer. Fast, whose most recent novel, The Golden Fire, was set in ancient India, again demonstrates his ability to evoke exotic settings. The result is a thoroughly good read. (May)