I’ve recently read a couple of books set in the near future, all of which were united by the sense of impending catastrophe. Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson is set in 2017 but the world, at first, doesn’t appear to be vastly different to that of now. However, all of the European Union is in economic crisis and has been bailed out by China. It is about to default on its debts and many Chinese feel it’s now time that old slurs and insults are avenged. Detective Alex Soong from the Hong Kong police is asked to investigate the murder of two Methodist ministers, whose deaths are quickly followed by the discovery of a gruesome massacre. The brutality of the killings has echoes of the atrocities of the Boxer Rebellion, which results in Alex approaching a renowned historian to help identify links to the past.
Despite its 2017 setting, the book has the feel of a present day thriller. Hong Kong hasn’t changed beyond recognition although the ever-watching presence of the media appears to have escalated to the extent that there is a running commentary on everything that Alex does. He is given an interesting back story: his parents were forced to give up their daughters under the one child policy and Alex is determined, one day, to track them down. He is married to the beautiful Jun, who refuses to engage in any discussion about the darker side of his job but is unwittingly dragged into the investigation.
The book is a compelling read both in terms of the pull of the narrative and enticing the reader into empathising with the central characters, which is key given some of the events that occur later in the book. One of the Jepson’s greatest strengths is the way in which he manages to write about the ferocity of the violence with a restraint that can be missing in other crime fiction writers. There is clearly more milage left in Alex Soong; Emperors Once More is the first in a trilogy and it will be interesting to see how the characters develop given the changes that have taken place in their lives.
Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.