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Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Fire from the Sun" by John Derbyshire (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official John Derbyshire Website
Order Fire from the Sun HERE

INTRODUCTION: John Derbyshire is a columnist for the leading conservative journal The National Review and the author of a remarkable popular math book The Prime Obssession, which deservedly brought him quite a lot of acclaim. If you have the smallest affinity and/or interest in math, Prime Obssession is one of those once in a decade gems that reads like a historical thriller, while exposing the reader to some very interesting "real" math that is still part of the current research frontiers.

In addition, he wrote another popular math book Unknown Quantity, which was quite good though it lacked the punch of Prime Obsession, and the novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream which I enjoyed some years ago.

Fire from the Sun was originally published through Xlibris some 12 years ago, but at three volumes with a total cost verging toward 100$ the print volumes were too expensive for me and like with The Transylvanian Trilogy I always kept an eye for an affordable choice.

Fast forward 2012 and the ebook revolution and the moment I saw
Mr. Derbyshire putting an announcement in the NR Corner that he was offering the whole book for a very good price on the Amazon Kindle platform - with other platforms to come - I bought it on the spot and read it that evening and night as I stayed way, way too late to finish it, so engrossing it was.

In the words of the author:

"The novel is a romantic and historical epic painted on a very broad canvas. It follows the fortunes of two people, William Leung and Margaret Han, from the mid-1960s through to the early 1990s. They are childhood friends in a small town in southwestern China. Then the Great Cultural Revolution divides them, and they follow separate paths to success in the Western world: William as a Wall Street tycoon and Margaret as a singer of Italian opera.

The background of the story is recent Chinese history, bracketed by two great upheavals: the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and the student movement of 1989.

The book's action ranges all over China, from the lush valleys of the southwest to the frozen plains of Manchuria, from the garrison settlements of occupied Tibet to elite apartments in Beijing, from the easy-going corruption of 1970s Hong Kong to the wakening bustle of post-Mao Shanghai. It then moves on to the international opera circuit, the boardrooms of Wall Street, and the habitations of the rich in Manhattan and Long Island's East End.

The book has an appendix listing all the operas, arias, singers and operatic terms used in the text."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Fire from the Sun is a page turner and you will go through it in a flash despite its length since it is so engrossing that you want to find out what happens next, what twists and turns the author has reserved for the two main heroes and how the momentous events the two are connected with are seen by them and the extended supporting cast.

The prose is clear and straightforward, not unlike the regular NYT bestsellers - a recent book that has some similarity in prose and sweep with Fire from the Sun is Ken Follett's epic The Fall of Giants -and the attraction of the novel is not in its literary qualities but in the events seen through the eyes of the two main characters in alternating chunks of pages, with some convergence towards the end.

The emotional content is lost on occasion when major things happen or are revealed but the author's take on the events, mores, cultures through the eyes of the vast cast of secondary characters more than makes up for that, while the two main heroes have very distinctive voices which are treated quite differently in feel.

Starting in a provincial Chinese town in 1965, our main heroes - Weilin/William and Yuezhu/Margaret are 8 year olds that meet and become best friends (and feel the first stirrings of attraction without of course knowing what is it) at the town pool.

Weilin is from an "intellectual" family and his dad is a math professor at the local college, while they have books, vinyl records and other trappings of the educated of the time and place and the boy, only child, is very handsome, bright and quite interested in math and reading.

Yuezhu is from a politically correct family - her father is an army officer of peasant stock and firm revolutionary principles though even in the People's Army, careers rise and fall depending on whose commander's commander is ascending or descending. Yuezhu is beautiful, loves dancing and music and while she is not that interested in math she likes being around with Weilin and they keep meeting despite being at different schools; however Yuezhu is also in awe of her older half brother, a rebellious teen who becomes a main leader of the Red Guards when the Cultural Revolution is unleashed soon after.

The expected happens - Weilin's dad is "struggled" - denounced, publicly humiliated and then beaten to death - while colleagues and even close friends from the university forsake him and compete to have the loudest denunciations, Half Brother is among the leaders of the torturers and Yuezhou is in the "little red guards" cheering them up, while Weilin is forced to denounce his father and is ignored and humiliated by the girl to boot, so he develops a powerful hate for Yuezhu and her family, hate that will later have of course consequences.

Later their life continues on these opposite tracks - Weilin and his mother make the trek north to the wastelands of Chinese Siberia where she has some relatives and he seems to be condemned to a (probably short) life of material misery and intellectual poverty, while Yuezhou moves to Beijing a few years later when her father's faction in the military wins and he is promoted, and the girl becomes part of the elite schools of the capital, learns English and sees Nixon at a performance, while later is accepted at the prestigious Dance Academy just opened, part of the efforts to start bringing China in the modern world.

However, Weilin - handsome and all - makes easy friends with a local teen wheeler and dealer and later they decide to escape to Hong Kong of fable where Weilin's mom told him that she has an uncle.

And so the saga starts and we follow the two on tumultuous paths in many places from China, Tibet and Hong Kong to later the US and almost everywhere; their fortunes twist and turn, their paths cross though not necessarily in expected ways and the book just begs you to turn the pages.

Punctuated by wonderful Chinese stories that various characters use to make this or that point, Fire from the Sun (top 25 novel 0f 2012) is a truly panoramic and a wonderful and gripping read that will stay with you for a long while.



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