The City of Sand, Tianxia Bachang (Delacorte 978-0-553-52410-9 $17.99, 243pp, tp) November 2017.
For readers looking for a full-tilt adventure with a side order of the supernatural, Chinese author Tianxia Bachang has all they could want with The City of Sand. The novel starts with a bang as teenage “gold hunters” Tianyi and Kai awaken a very angry spirit while looking for treasure inside a grave. Their Indiana Jones bonafides firmly established, the author then sets the narrative on its primary course: an expedition into the dangerous Taklamakan Desert to find a lost city and the archeologists who went missing in search of it.
Tianyi and Kai are hired as part of the desert expedition because Tianyi and his feng shui abilities are needed to find Jingjue City. The group is led by an American, Julie Yang, who manages to be another teenager and also “one of National Geographic‘s most highly respected photographers.” Julie is looking for her father, who led the lost expedition. In her endeavor she is aided by Professor Chen, a legendary archaeologist. Chen has an assistant and three students who are also along for the ride and there is also an appropriately surly desert guide/camel wrangler who utters many dire prophetic comments as the group heads out. It is not a spoiler to expect that there is no way everyone is going to survive this trip. The only question is just how creepy it’s going to get before the body count is done. (Second nonspoiler: very creepy.)
The sheer joy that Bachang must have had writing this book is evident in every dangerous situation he drops his characters into. They nearly die in sandstorm then nearly die from deadly snakes. They find some bodies and wonder how those guys did die. They find a long-hidden grave, but not the one they are looking for. Then, in Jingjue City, everything goes to hell in a handbasket as it always does when the grave of a powerful king/queen, etc. is disturbed AND SO MANY THINGS HAPPEN. Tianyi is smart, Kai is bold, and Julie is determined. And it all works out in the end, except for the folks who make up the body count.
There are several things Bachang does quite well with The City of Sand. He keeps a breakneck pace, so adventure readers won’t get bored. There are only the barest hints of romantic flirtation, but they don’t stall the main plot and there is no fear that while running for their lives, two of the characters will suddenly get all swoony. More importantly, the author takes the time to insert some aspects of feng shui history which are quite interesting. He also makes a few more modern points about economic inequality. Julie is rich while Tianyi and Kai are gold hunters (grave robbers) out of necessity. They are on this trip because, first and foremost, they need the money. When Julie bucks their mercenary tendencies at one point, Kai sets her straight:
You’ve never had to worry where your next meal was coming from. So you don’t understand anything about our lives, the circumstances we grew up in, and you don’t have the right to judge us. And don’t bother telling us how to live. Poor people don’t live, we only survive.
Julie isn’t cruel, just a bit insufferable, but it’s a telling moment in the book as Kai makes clear just how great the gulf is between them. This cements his and Tianyi’s outsider status which stays firm until the last, barely-getting-out-alive turn of the page. With a sequel due in fall 2018 (The Dragon Ridge Tombs), there is plenty more ahead for these two friends and I’m sure that adventure readers are going to enjoy all Bachang offers up.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.
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