✨I received an E-ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. ✨
The Balance of Heaven and Earth: A Magistrate Zhu Mystery by Laurence Westwood
Published September 30th 2018 by Shikra Press
Classified as Crime, Historical, & Adult
Obtained as Ebook
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,
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.
Content & Trigger Warnings:Murder, implied rape attempt, mention of sex trafficking, death, and kidnapping.
Although the stereotypical phrase, “It’s not you, it’s me” has been the single, most-universally used cop-out for breakups since the beginning of time (probably), I’m going to risk sounding trite and use it anyways to describe my relationship with The Balance of Heaven and Earth. Truly, I am suffering from a serious case of “right book, wrong reader” syndrome right now.
Think of this book as CSI: Ancient China. Magistrates and constables replace private detectives and policemen, and the result is something similar to the tried-and-true formula of your standard TV crime show: there’s a seemingly unsolvable murder mystery, a complex legal case, and lots of interoffice drama. Sounds pretty cool, right? The only problem? I’m not a huge fan of crime shows. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been known to like a good whodunit every once in awhile, but for me, The Balance of Heaven and Earth just wasn’t it.
As someone who generally reads fast-paced Young Adult Fantasy novels, the meandering, and at times lagging, nature of this story caught me off guard and struggled to retain my
chronically short attention. The details about law and investigative practices in ancient China might be fascinating to some, but they were less so to me. As I mentioned before – right book, wrong reader.
“This is why we must find the killer of Mister Gong with all haste – not just for the sake of his family or the peace of Mister Gong’s spirit in the afterlife. It is because the balance of Heaven and Earth demands this of us. Do you understand?”
Set in 11th Century China, the story revolves around the disgraced Magistrate Zhu as he tries to redeem himself by accepting a new government position in the rural town of Tranquil Mountain. Intrigue arises almost from the moment he steps foot into town, and the new Magistrate is left with not only piles of paperwork to sort through (yuck), but a supposedly phantasmal murder to solve.
“You have to begin again. You have to accept whatever is given you, and discover your humility. Once you have done this, and regained your honor, then you can be once more of great service to China.”
Although I am not at all well versed in Chinese history, it’s clear that the author has done his research. The world presented in The Balance of Heaven and Earth feels intensely realistic and offers an immersive experience that highlights both ancient Chinese law and philosophy. I was genuinely blown away by the author’s detailed knowledge of the era and how effortlessly he brought the time period to life for me with his seasoned writing style – especially the little tea-growing town of Tranquil Mountain. But try as I might, the spectacular setting of the novel failed to compensate for the general lack of interest I felt concerning the overarching plot.
Although Magistrate Zhu’s meant to be the star of the show – it’s his name in the title, after all – this story is not his alone. Throughout the novel we are introduced to the many inhabitants of Tranquil Mountain, all of whom I thought were well-written, well-rounded, and well…sort of boring. One of the only characters that I didn’t find to be such was Jade Moon, a young seamstress who is as talented with her bow as she is with her needle. If there was anything about this novel that kept me coming back for more, it was her. A headstrong young woman in a time when to be such was frowned upon, I found her sad plight and subsequent legal battle to be the most intriguing part of the entire novel.
“Remember if your heart is pure, your mind open, your gaze steady, and your concentration total – then you will not miss.”
The writing in The Balance of Heaven and Earth was solid, the worldbuilding was on point, the large cast of characters was well-balanced (Haha see what I did there? It’s funny because of the title. Okay, shutting up), …and yet, finishing this book was such a chore for me. As somebody who reads almost exclusively YA Fantasy, this historical murder mystery written for an adult audience definitely lands outside of my usual reading preferences. And while at times branching out and trying something a bit different can be extremely rewarding, this was (sadly) not one of those times. This book might be for you – I would definitely recommend it if you like crime novels that are character-driven – but it simply wasn’t for me.
MIX IT ALL UP AND YOU GET… 2.5 WAFFLES!
Have you ever read a book that was good, but just wasn’t for you? If so, what book was it and how did you end up rating it?
Are you into crime books? What are some of your favorites?