On the mountainous border of China and Tibet in 1708, a detective must learn what a killer already knows: that empires rise and fall on the strength of the stories they tell.
Li Du was an imperial librarian. Now he is an exile. Arriving in Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border, he is surprised to find it teeming with travelers, soldiers, and merchants. All have come for a spectacle unprecedented in this remote province: an eclipse of the sun commanded by the Emperor himself.
When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in the home of the local magistrate, blame is hastily placed on Tibetan bandits. But Li Du suspects this was no random killing. Everyone has secrets: the ambitious magistrate, the powerful consort, the bitter servant, the irreproachable secretary, the East India Company merchant, the nervous missionary, and the traveling storyteller who can't keep his own story straight.
Beyond the sloping roofs and festival banners, Li Du can see the mountain pass that will take him out of China forever. He must choose whether to leave, and embrace his exile, or to stay, and investigate a murder that the town of Dayan seems all too willing to forget.
Political and religious intrigue drives Hart's compelling debut set in 18th-century China. Disgraced Beijing librarian Li Du arrives in Dayan near the border with Burma to find his ambitious magistrate cousin preparing for the visit of the emperor and a major festival that will feature an eclipse, according to the emperor's prediction. The sudden death of Pieter van Dalen, an elderly Jesuit astronomer, is attributed to natural causes until Li Du discovers the man's tea was poisoned. Distrusting the conclusion that local bandits were responsible, the modest but tenacious librarian looks for potential perpetrators in his cousin's household, including a Jesuit botanist with secrets, an English representative of the East India Company eager for trade deals, an exotic storyteller, an embittered old servant, and an enigmatic beauty serving as the magistrate's first consort. An attempt on Li Du's life indicates that he's closing in on the answer. Hart's sure command of historical complexities, conflicts between cultures, and plot twists leads to a satisfying conclusion.