31 Jul 2019

Review - The Balance of Heaven and Earth by Laurence Westwood

Title: The Balance of Heaven and Earth

Author: Laurence Westwood


I have been unable to write a judgement that does not seem to offend my conscience, or indeed Heaven, in some manner. Because I do not wish to influence your thinking unduly, I have destroyed all my personal papers and notes in regard to this dispute, preferring you to start afresh. Forgive me for this. All I ask is that you consider and examine Jade Moon most carefully before coming to a decision. I find her fascinating and unsettling in equal measure, and fear the consequences of a wrongful judgement. I will say no more.

My sincerest best wishes to you and your family,

Magistrate Qian
Fifth District, Chengdu Prefecture
1st day of the 2nd Moon, 1085

So ends the letter of welcome (and of warning) to Magistrate Zhu, newly arrived in the remote border town of Tranquil Mountain. He has travelled far from his extensive family estates on the outskirts of Kaifeng – the glorious Song Dynasty capital – hoping to find atonement for past mistakes.

Yet he quickly discovers that Tranquil Mountain is anything but tranquil. The town is beset with simmering tensions since the death of his predecessor. Before Magistrate Zhu even has time to accustom himself to his inexperienced and wayward constabulary and the lowliness of his new surroundings, there is a mysterious murder, rumours of ghosts and blood-thirsty bandits out on the streets, and a disturbing kidnapping to solve – as well as the tragic and tangled legal circumstances of the local heroine Jade Moon to unravel.

For the balance of Heaven and Earth to be maintained, and to prevent catastrophe coming to Tranquil Mountain, Magistrate Zhu is well aware that not a single injustice can be allowed to stand. As he struggles to reach the correct judgements, he realises he has no choice but to offer up his career and perhaps even his own life for the greater good. And, in so doing, he discovers that as Jade Moon’s fate rests in his hands, so his fate ultimately rests in hers.

My Thoughts:

 "You should understand this, Senior scribe Xu, that any injustice, great or small, moves Heaven and Earth out of balance."

This book became an innocent victim of my reading slump I'm afraid; it took me ages to read it, but let me tell you, it wasn't the book's fault at all *points at herself*. The Balance of Heaven and Earth is a historical small town mystery/crime novel well worthy of praise, so let me do just that.

This novel is unlike anything I've read before, mainly because I'm not very familiar with Chinese history, but I'm always happy to learn something new, and for this reason 'visiting' a 11th century small Chinese town was a real treat for me. The characters are so well introduced and developed that you can't help but welcome them as friends after a while. 

Jade Moon is considered a hero in Tranquil Mountain, and still, her fate is quite uncertain when Magistrate Zhu arrives to town to fill in his new position and administer the law. They both have a troubled past and their future oddly lies in the hand of one another.

Not surprisingly women had quite a vulnerable position in Chinese society too a thousand years ago and it could easily happen that a female child was sold to a rich family to entertain the sons of the household. Jade Moon if facing the bonds of concubinage unless Magistrate Zhu is willing and capable of finding a hole in the law that would allow her to gain her freedom back.

Jade Moon is a fighter, the daughter of a 'barbarian' and a Chinese mother, a curiosity for the Chinese people for her fierce and passionate nature. It was quite eye opening to read about what was considered Chinese-ness at the time. To be Chinese was to follow the traditions, that you were born on the same piece of land didn't instantly mean you were Chinese. The cultural distinction was quite emphasized between these two set of people, the Chinese and the barbarians.
"If a law opresses the people, how can it be called a law?"

Another interesting topic in the book was the law and Magistrate Zhu's approach to certain questions related to it. Is the law always right? What if it makes people suffer unnecessarily? Who should make the law? Can it be overlooked if it is morally unacceptable for the individual? Such interesting musings to read about!

The secondary characters were very entertaining too: the constables; Horse, the bright young man who matures a lot during the story, the good-for-nothing Deng brothers, Little Ox with his strength and bravery, Leaf, the little kid who they always want to send off to bed, but is always ready to fight... Senior Scribe Xu, the kind old man who was always on Jade Moon's side was also one of my favourites.

The writing style is very steady, it's flowing well and is easy to read. The story is a bit slow burn, but I like this kind, if you do too, I'm sure it will satisfy you.

If you're on the lookout for something different at the moment, give The Balance of Heaven and Earth a try.

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