When the first Ava Lee novel was published in 2011, it introduced a character who was fresh and atypical: a lesbian Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant and martial arts master who dresses in Brooks Brothers suits and spends her time flying around the world in an effort to retrieve her clients’ stolen funds. Eight years and 11 books (12 if you count the ebook prequel) later, Ava is still the straight-shooting, globe-trotting operative with the nerves of steel and cool composure. But in The Goddess of Yantai, Ian Hamilton’s latest instalment of the series, Ava’s personal and professional lives collide in a manner that shakes the usually unflappable character.
In Beijing to help broker a business deal, Ava takes the opportunity to spend time with Pang Fai, the beautiful actress with whom she started a relationship months before. After attending the premiere of Fai’s latest movie, Ava is shocked to find her love in a state of distress: it seems Fai is in danger of being blacklisted by the authoritative China Movie Syndicate.
Fai’s fate is in the hands of fickle and power-hungry Syndicate chairman, Mo, who expects sexual favours from the willowy actress in exchange for releasing her newest movie and ensuring her future projects get funding. While Fai has engaged in such deals in the past, her relationship with Ava and growing maturity have her desperately wanting to deny Mo’s demands. But the prospect of losing everything she’s worked for is devastating. When a secretly filmed sex tape of Fai with another woman results in a blackmail call, it’s up to Ava to figure out who is behind it and how the threats are related while simultaneously rescuing Fai from her own past.
Readers of Hamilton’s series have come to expect certain things: there will be overly detailed descriptions of every morsel of food Ava and her companions put into their mouths; Ava’s sartorial choices will be detailed right down to each expensive brand she favours; the dialogue will be stilted but oddly effective; Hamilton will educate the reader on some facet of business or culture in a manner that is deeply informative without being didactic; and Ava will get a chance to best every other person in the room (or street, or alley, or hotel). In other words, it’s a formula that works, and while Hamilton strives to change things up book-to-book – with some instalments being more entertaining or action-packed than others – there is little here that deviates from the elements that have made the series successful and attracted a loyal following.
For those growing a bit weary of Ava’s exploits (or simply looking for more new material from a favourite author), Fate: The Lost Decades of Uncle Chow Tung provides an origin story for Uncle, Ava’s beloved former mentor, whose rise through the ranks of the Hong Kong Triads makes for fascinating reading, even if the details stretch credulity on several occasions.
The novel opens in 1959 with Uncle and a handful of other desperate souls (including his true love, Gui-San) escaping Mao’s communist regime. While braving the rank waters of Shenzhen Bay to swim to freedom in Hong Kong, Uncle becomes violently ill and barely survives. When he discovers that Gui-San died in the crossing, the course of his life changes dramatically, leading to his involvement with the Fanling Triad and eventual rise to power.
Uncle, an enigmatic figure in Hamilton’s previous novels, is given a good dose of humanity and even vulnerability in Fate. When the Fanling Triad comes under attack from a neighbouring faction and within its own ranks, Uncle – still young and relatively inexperienced despite his position as the gang’s money man – finds himself forced into a leadership role by sheer dint of his street smarts, analytical thinking, and precise instincts.
As we watch his confidence grow, we are also privy to his inner thoughts and doubts, made more poignant by the opening sequence and the knowledge that this apparently “hard” man is operating in a constant state of simmering sorrow and loneliness. Even when he takes drastic actions, we sense that they are born out of loyalty to his brotherhood rather than a quest for power or authority. He’s an enticing character, and the shift in focus from Ava’s more cerebral milieu to Uncle’s dynamic gang existence offers the promise of exciting things to come.
While Hamilton’s latest Ava Lee novel feels a bit like the author is running out of steam regarding where to take his central character, it will likely still find a welcome audience in fans of the previous instalments. Those fresh to Hamilton’s work or simply looking for something familiar but different, meanwhile, will find much to like in the author’s new series.