REVIEW: Daughter of Calamity by Rosalie M. Lin

Rosalie M. Lin’s debut, Daughter of Calamity is set in the glittering world of Shanghai in the 1920s. A cultural melting pot thanks to the influence of colonialism, the Jazz Age seems to have taken root in China. The setting is enjoying a burst in popularity, notably in Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights. And just like Gong, Lin picks up on these cultural tensions, on a world where nothing is quite like it was only a few years earlier. Both these stories grow out of organised crime – but that is where the similarities end. Lin’s Daughter of Calamity follows Jingwen, a dancer in one of the night clubs, as she is drawn into the family business, as one might say.

Jingwen’s story is one of self-determination more than oriented towards romance – and full of calculation and manipulation. It is dark just as much as it is glittering with the gold brought in by the setting. Girls, dancers, are losing bits of themselves. Jingwen is there when Huahua, one of her fellow dancers, is suddenly found without her lips. Only to see those precise lips on a white woman shortly after. Jingwen’s grandmother is a healer of sorts. One bound to the will of Wang Daojun, the leader of the Society of the Blue Dawn – who are colloquially known as “silverhands” due to their magical prosthetics. A reader may wonder if the two things are linked.

The central thread running through Daughter of Calamity is that power corrupts. No one who grows powerful is able to remain objectively good. Just as much as the players exploit power, power exploits them. Jingwen becomes her grandmother’s apprentice to bring her down – and Wang Daojun with her. She is motivated both intrinsically and externally. The Society of the Blue Dawn is just one of the many players in Shanghai’s underbelly. While they certainly take a prominent position within the story, it is always clear that they are just one part of a large web. Ultimately, it doesn’t make much of a difference who holds the power. They are all flavours of the same corruption trying to cement their position and willing to wager everything.

Daughter of Calamity is a dark and captivating tale. I loved reading a story focused on the moral ambiguity of its characters rather than romance. While there is a romantic element to it, it takes a back seat to the power dynamics examined. Jingwen is given space to discover herself. The story is pensive even while it is racing through dramatic events – and utterly enthralling. Daughter of Calamity is a different book to the one I thought I was going into, subverting expectations and eschewing simple expectations. It is a shimmering jewel of a debut and I look forward to reading more of Lin’s work.

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.

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