Jessica Amanda Salmonson is in my opinion one of the most underappreciated fantasy authors of the 20th century. She wrote and edited several paperback fantasy novels in the 70s and 80s, but has faded into relative obscurity since, which is a shame. A terrible shame.
My favorite work by her is the Tomoe Gozen
trilogy, about the eponymous woman warrior of Samurai legend. Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman
is even more obscure, a stand-alone novel about a peasant named Ou Lu Khen who falls in love with a girl named Yeung Mai Su. Mai Su is "mad" in the sense that she is completely oblivious to worldly concerns, and while she sings like an angel, she never speaks a word. Blessed as she is by the Buddha, Ou Lu Khen cannot hope to realize his dream of marrying her. However, when the burdens of being the eldest son of his impoverished family weigh on him too heavily, he renounces them and flees into the wilds with the trusting, otherworldly Mai Su.
Their quest takes them to the tombs of the Lost Dynasty, an evil empire that ruled for a thousand years with such wickedness that history has forgotten them, though legends have not. However, Lu Khen and Mai Su are followed by Lu Khen's little sister, Koy, and his great-grandfather, Ou Po Lee, who wish to bring their prodigal family head back. And all of them are trailed by a disreputable villain named Harada Fumiaka, an exile from an island nation who has a grudge against them all that started with Ou Lu Khen stealing his boat.
This is in many ways a classic adventure tale, alternating between three parties: Ou Lu Khen and his mystical maiden companion, who proves to have a vision and powers far beyond anyone's expectations, the charming and unlikely adventurers Koy and Po Lee, a tiny girl and a hundred-year-old man, who also both show amazing resilience on their quest, and finally, Harada Fumiaka, who tracks them Gollum-like to the tombs of the Lost Dynasty, where there is a Gollum-like final confrontation, but with a very different outcome.
this book. I really, really loved it. The writing, the splendid fantasy bursting across the pages, from Po Lee and Koy discovering a tribe of tattooed aborigines whose ancient, oracular wise woman turns out to be a long, long-ago lover of Po Lee (a revelation he is most embarrassed about revealing to his little great-granddaughter) to the guardian spirits and the terrible demons and monsters who appear in the climax. Despite being very high fantasy with a decidedly (and culturally appropriate) Asian feel, it is fundamentally a human tale. We see Koy growing up on her journey, learning new things (like the fact that her great-grandfather is not infallible) and trying to be a heroine... and only kind of succeeding because she is not a little ninja, she's just a kid. Ou Lu Khen is well-intentioned and good-hearted, but also selfish and short-sighted. As he realizes that not only is he not worthy of Mai Su, but that their quest is much bigger than either of them and not about him at all, he struggles to be true to her while having no idea what his role or purpose is. And Harada Fumiaka, while the villain of the story, turns out to be more pitiable than despicable.
Koy was forever a combination of obedience and obstinance. But the fact was, she had no intention of fighting the Naga with Harada's sword. Po Lee, however, was not privy to her feelings about the sword. It was natural that he should fear that she was holding it in order to do something stupid. Certain that she had some plan impossible to accomplish, he rushed out from cover and started toward her, scolding all the while, "Did I tell you you could take it from the scabbard?"
"It is only a good luck charm!" she shouted in defense, and stamped a foot as much from frustration as anything else. She was sad to see her great-grandfather angry with her.
The writing isn't just surprisingly nuanced in its psychological and cultural portrayals, it's also very fine writing for its own sake. Salmonson is a storyteller par excellence.
Really, this book needs
to be read by more people. Look how few reviews it has! It is a tragedy. If you love traditional fantasy, well-written
but unabashedly old-school fantasy, in an Asian setting that is not just trappings and Chinoiserie but actually takes history and culture and religion into account, then read Jessica Amanda Salmonson's books. I've never been disappointed by her.