The Russian Concubine

The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall. After waiting several months for this title to finally arrive at my library, I was quite disappointed to find this novel set in turbulent Junchow, China in 1928 was pure historical fiction with very little mystery. Sure, there are vicious drug lords, unscrupulous English bureaucrats and mysterious Russians that add to the intrigue as China falls into civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops and the Communist rebels. Yes, there is extortion and smuggling and kidnapping and the theft of a brilliant ruby necklace. But all the political, familial and criminal intrigues are secondary to the romantic story of teenagers Lydia Ivanova and Chang An Lo. Lydia and her mother Valentina, a concert pianist whose meager earnings are spent mostly on vodka, are stuck in Junchow with no passport and few job opportunities and are struggling just to survive after fleeing the Bolsheviks in Russia. Lydia attends a school in the whites-only International Settlement with a headmaster who appreciates and teaches about the beauty and history of China. She provides for her family’s expenses by engaging in pick pocketing and selling her trophies in a Chinese pawnshop. On one of these dangerous visits to the old section of the city, she is rescued by the Black Snake tong by Chang, an orphan who firmly believes in the communist cause. The passion that these two young people have for life soon translates into mutual interest as they attempt to protect each other from the criminals and troops hunting them.

As historical fiction, Furnivall does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary China from the divergent perspectives of the Chinese, Russian, and English communities. Despite the sickeningly sweet romance at its core, the adventure side of it was compelling enough to keep me interested. In fact, my favorite character was the elderly tong leader, who exercises complete control over his gang and the Chinese part of the city and manipulates events in the International Settlement as well, but whose own family structure crumbles around him as he can’t control the actions of the next generation looking to create a vastly different country. The open-ended conclusion allows for the story to continue in a second forthcoming volume.

For those looking for an excellent mystery set in this time period and location, I recommend Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain, based in 1926 Shanghai.

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