4 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
With a stunning cover, Greg Kater’s Conflict on the Yangtze also shines with a title surrounded by mystery and legend. Published in 2019 by Zeus Publications, the book is a historical novel abounding in lots of action, adventure, and suspense. Although it follows on from the Warramunga trilogy, it could easily be read as a standalone novel.
Following the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, Jamie Munro and Jack ‘Jacko’ O’Brien work for CIS (the Commonwealth Investigation Service) in Darwin, Northern Australia. When Colonel John Cook of MI6 lets them know of the death of one of their operatives in China, they do not hesitate to go there and join the investigation into the illegal affairs of an extended network of opium smugglers. They suspect that the smugglers’ nest is somewhere near Tongling, a village on the Yangtze River. After being processed, the opium is supposedly shipped to the USA, the Philippines, and Australia.
Jamie and Jacko soon learn that post-war China has become a dangerous place because of the major power struggle between the Kuomintang government, the communists, and various warlord bandits. To reach Shanghai, they first fly to Manila, Philippines. Their wives, Carna and Monique, together with Jacko’s half-sister Sarah, remain in Manila with Monique’s parents, Henri and Bella Rousseau. Thinking their families will be safe there, Jamie and Jacko are not aware that the smugglers’ far-stretching operations will also put their close ones in danger. Joined by Harry Williams Jr., chief of the US intelligence agency in Manila, and Lee Drake, an MI6 operative playing the part of a humble tea dealer in Shanghai, Jamie and Jacko can only hope that their mission will be successful.
At 270 pages, the novel never loses its alert tempo. The third-person narrator skillfully weaves the multiple narrative threads into a unitary whole. There are 26 chapters in which the perspective alternatively changes between the good guys and the numerous scoundrels involved in the opium-smuggling operation. The action mostly takes place in Shanghai and along the Yangtze River in China, but it also includes episodes on Samar Island in the Philippines and the Roper region in Australia. Considering the accuracy of the historical details, the author obviously did a lot of research to be able to depict the social, economic, and political relationships in the aftermath of World War II. For the same reason, the book is prefaced by a detailed map of the Yangtze River, a map of the central part of Shanghai in 1946, and a picture of the famous Bund, the Shanghai waterfront area hosting dozens of historical buildings.
What I absolutely loved about Greg Kater’s novel was the exquisite blending of historical realism, exoticism, and elements of cultural specificity. For example, I did not know that Chiang Kai-shek had asked the defeated Japanese to act as policemen in Shanghai until his nationalist forces could take control of the city. Even if the novel is action-packed, the author still finds time to add one historical fact after another. In this way, I learnt that the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai hosted famous figures like Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, or General Ulysses S. Grant. From a different perspective, the river trip on the Yangtze is a great opportunity for vivid images of the magnificent scenery. I was impressed not only by the amazing flora and fauna, but also by the descriptions of beautiful shrines or ancient Buddhist temples.
To support the atmosphere of intrigue and suspense in his espionage novel, Greg Kater needed many characters. His greatest achievement is to have endowed them with unique physical or behavioral features for the readers to easily identify them and keep track of their actions. As expected in such a novel, the male characters are predominant. The villains belong to all walks of life, from the highest echelons of power in Shanghai to foreign agents, boat captains, or mere truck drivers. I wish there were more female figures, like Sarah, Jacko’s half-sister. Due to her remarkable tracking and bushcraft skills, she saves the day when the others seem to run out of options.
Themes such as friendship, patriotism, and the power of self-sacrifice run in parallel with the thirst for power, corruption, or the consequences of war. With a gradually rising tension and a satisfying climax, Conflict on the Yangtze would be a delight for all fans of historical fiction and espionage thrillers. Those who want to learn more about other cultures could confidently choose this novel too. The savory of some of the dialogues comes precisely from the culture-specific items (see Carna’s Spanish words and phrases, Monique’s French expressions, or Sarah’s broken English). The picturesque descriptions of Shanghai reveal a genuine melting pot. What is more, reading the Manila chapters, you get the chance to discover the local cuisine or customs, such as the Visayan folk dance called Tinikling. Once the action moves to Australia, there are various references to the local myths and superstitions.
Last but not least, the novel benefits from an excellent editing. I could only spot a handful of minor issues consisting of some missing indefinite articles and wrong capitalization. Without a doubt, I am rating this book 4 out of 4 stars. All things considered, I think Greg Kater’s Conflict on the Yangtze is a great addition to any future reading list.
Conflict on the Yangtze
View: on Bookshelves
Like cristinaro's review? Post a comment saying so!