Ian Myles Slater on A Fantasy of Medieval China
Posted by Ian M. Slater on 9/16/2003
"Jade Enchantress", published in 1982, is one of two fantasy novels set in medieval China which appeared near the end of E. Hoffmann Price's long career as a professional writer. (He was a friend and contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.) Like "Devil Wives of Li Fong," the story combines a likeable but imperfect hero, several beautiful women (often, but not always, of supernatural origin), and a fair amount of Chinese history and "local color." For example, antagonisms between Buddhists and Taoists are one of the driving forces behind events in "Devil Wives," while in "Jade Enchantress" government corruption and foreign war keep things moving. No prior knowledge is really necessary, although anyone who enjoys either of the books will probably want to find out more about the Celestial Hierarchy, Chinese demons, herbal medicine, and any number of other topics.
"Jade Enchantress" includes entertaining details of the workings and personnel of the popular Chinese pantheon (apparently correct for some times and places), and (naturally) a fair amount of traditional lore about that obviously magical substance, jade. The Lawrence Schwinger cover art (in shades of jade green, naturally) is beautiful, and appropriate without revealing much about the plot.
Price, who emerged from the pulp fiction era of stock characterizations and ethnic stereotyping, tended to fall into these traps (albeit from a pro-Chinese perspective) even in his late science fiction, like "Operation Misfit" (1980) and its sequels.. Fortunately, in "Jade Enchantress," the main focus is on Chinese characters and social roles and outsiders are seen through their eyes, so the alert reader is invited to interpret their perceptions as character development or plot devices instead of authorial opinions. (A similar technique was used by Robert van Gulik to portray Judge Dee as a "perfect" -- meaning highly conventional -- Chinese official in his series of mysteries also set in T'ang Dynasty China.)
It is a pity that Price did not write more such novels -- and that those he did write have not been kept in print.