Duncan (When the Saints) returns to the alternate-history oeuvre with this reimagined Boxer Rebellion tale. Though arguably too overworked for its own good, it’s nevertheless a deftly, imaginatively plotted work of fantasy. Duncan’s version of 19th-century China has been twisted by the titular portal’s influence: nobody knows what chaos will occur when it opens each millennium, only that it is set to do so again soon. This massively important event is so built up that when it eventually happens, it can’t help but be anticlimactic; the intricate politicking that makes up most of the book ends up being far more satisfying than the portal-related events. Readers follow the somewhat sinister escapades of a rags-to-riches assassin, the unfolding of a dynasty-altering conspiracy, a vast brainwashed army laying waste to its own country, and the tribulations of the only human whose memory transcends death. The little magic Duncan describes is enough to suggest much more, setting up massively satisfying plot twists. Though Duncan’s narrative is male-centric and contains multiple eyebrow-raising scenes of sexual assault, he does a better job than most in his genre at creatively restructuring historical gender roles, and his bone-dry wit is at the top of its class. Song of Ice and Fire fans should take note. Agent: Richard Curtis, Richard Curtis Associates. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 12/05/2016 Release date: 02/01/2017 Genre: Fiction
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