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Edward Whittemore: Quin’s Shanghai Circus

I discovered Edward Whittemore when his Jerusalem Quartet was republished a few years back and Jeff VanderMeer (author of the awesome City of Saints and Madmen) gushed over it. I got around three-quarters of the way through that series, and found it simultaneously really interesting and hard to read through. Quin’s Shanghai Circus, which was written before those books, has many of the same qualities.

It’s a crazy collection of international intrigue and larger-than-life characters who are amped up practically enough to push the book into magical realism. The structure of the novel, like Whittemore’s other ones, is also odd, like a jigsaw puzzle; a decades-long history interweaving several characters is sketched out, then slowly filled in, almost at random, until the whole story is basically complete. I have to admit that keeping track of all the puzzle pieces was a little too much for me to handle; I found myself figuring out later that I had missed various “flash-forwards” (early vague references to story elements that were fleshed out later), and when surprising knitting-everything-together revelations occurred, I didn’t always remember exactly what was being knitted together, which kind of lessened the impact.

Plus none of the characters were really sympathetic, which pretty much reduced the whole thing to the assembly of that jigsaw puzzle. But Whittemore’s jigsaw puzzles are pretty neat, and there were a few really striking scenes and images. Still, I’m left thinking that I didn’t get everything out of it that he put in, and although I read it pretty fast, that was largely because I was worried that I’d forget the information I needed to make sense of the upcoming events. Anyway, this is one those mixed reviews you should pick and choose elements from to decide whether you think you would like it; although it didn’t end up doing a lot for me, there are people I would wholeheartedly recommend it to, knowing their likes and dislikes.

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