by Mee-mee Phipps
A book of this length and breadth is certainly impressive, and the author, Meemee Phipps draws together her material with mastery to craft a story in the great tradition of the odyssey genre.
Whilst the breadth and number of pages could put many readers off attempting such a read, the ease of style in which it is written balances this out. By no means is it simplistic, however.
The story begins with the castration of ZhengHe and the pace is set to gallop. This propels the storyline beautifully and immediately. ZhengHe, we find, had been enslaved and later comes into the service of the Emperor's third son, Prince Zhu Di. ZhengHe grows into royal service and takes on honorable roles eventually to become Admiral of the Treasure Fleet.
During this time ZhengHe falls in love and because Zhu Di fears the union and therefore the threat to the Dragon Throne, he orders the castration of ZhengHe, the event where the book begins.
Now, ZhengHe is vengeful. Since he must remain under the service of Zhu Di, he utilizes his role as Admiral and diplomat to garner the sense of freedom he desires. There are six voyages under Zhu Di and the descriptions of these are undeniably rich and detailed. One of the prominent features is of human interaction, all written in the present tense so that the action feels fresh and the pace of the storytelling stays dynamic. ZhengHe wrestles ideologically with the rule of Zhu Di and when the latter orders the execution of two thousand concubines, ZhengHe leaves for the sixth voyage.
Interwoven with this story are subplots that create a great tension for the reader. Political machinations sit beside travel tales, which are crafted into the epic style. Phipps is a meticulous writer who has researched and obviously loves the tale of ZhengHe, both the historical person and the heroic 'misfit' who must sacrifice much of himself unwillingly, to a greater cause. This is the enduring theme of the true hero.
Ultimately, this book is for a person who enjoys a saga-length story and of course would enjoy reading well-researched detail of early Ming dynastic history. Phipps is a writer of calibre and great wisdom.
Publisher: Seriously Red Books, Greenhithe, Auckland.
Availability: On Create Space for paperbacks and Kindle.
After April, Women's Bookshop and other independent stores.
For Libraries, from Wheelers and Papawai Press.