I first came into contact with M. J Tjia’s work almost exactly a year ago, with the great book She Be Damned, and here, we’re diving right back into the thick of things, into the lives of Heloise Chancey, Victorian courtesan and part-time mystery solver, and her mother, Amah, or Li Lee.
This book continues to build on the rich storylines it set in motion during She Be Damned: we meet some old faces, some new people and, of course, a murder that may or may not be tied to Amah’s personal history. It’s really refreshing to see how the Malay and Chinese communities lived in Victorian England- I don’t think it’s something we do see enough of. It also adds a new angle to the story, as Tjia dives into the revenge and anger that many justifiably held against the colonialists.
But this is only one subplot. A prominent family’s daughter has been murdered, and she’s only the first to go in a grisly spate of killings that sees Heloise enter the fray once more. She’s just as fabulous the first time around: gloriously unapologetic about who she is, resourceful, quick-witted and always ready with a witty riposte or two. One scene, where she takes over the role of children’s nanny for a week, had me in stitches, just because the fish-out-of-water angle is played so well. Her relationship with Amah comes under a lot more scrutiny here, which is fascinating (especially as we didn’t know they were related in the first book!) and watching the strained, loving and complex relationship between the two of them is really rewarding, especially by the end.
There are so many strands to this book that sometimes it’s hard to keep up, but it’s always interesting. We find out more about the past of Li Leen, her investigations in the present, and how it ties into Heloise’s investigation. There are swashbuckling soldiers, dark deeds in dark alleyways, and taking us from gin palaces to genteel country houses: as far as an introduction to Victorian society goes, this was remarkably effective, and really fascinating!
Enjoyable as it was, I do think that, at times, the book struggled to connect the two strands of story, and the subplot did feel irrelevant for large parts of the book. Tjia also has the tendency to keep us guessing on plot twists for far longer than is necessary- or believable, where the characters’ actions are concerned, which can be frustrating when they’re finally revealed.
Despite that, this was a tightly-plotted story, with a satisfying (if a tad bloody) ending that left me looking forward to the next instalment. More please!