Secrets of Jin-shei
by Alma Alexander

Harper San Francisco, 2004. ISBN 0060563419.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 04/07/2005

Fiction: Multi-Cultural; Fiction: Paranormal/Science Fiction/Fantasy

There are two types of sisters, those of blood and those of the heart. Although both kinds appear in The Secrets of Jin-shei, sisters of the heart, jin-shei, in the ancient, mythical Chinese kingdom of Syai dominate this tale. Eight girls pledge their loyalty, first one to one, then to each other as they grow out of their early teens and into adulthood. Eight girls, a healer, an artist-poet, a warrior, a gypsy, an alchemist, a wisdom keeper, a do-gooder turned rebel, and the Empress along with a gentle ghost create a bond in sisterhood which ties, tears and destroys and heals.

Tai writes in her journal of the sisterhood in the secret women's language which historically existed in ancient China. As a young child, she slips into the Imperial gardens of the summer palace to write and sketch. There she meets another young girl, first in line to become the next Empress. Antian, the princess, is enchanted with the joyful younger girl and asks her to become jin-shei, and so the sisterhood begins. The gods interfere with an earthquake which Tai survives. She writes in her journal:

"When I was a girl and the world broke, I thought I would always divide my life by that night in the mountains—the day before, the day after. I remember the surprise I felt to see the sun rise that [next] morning. But the sun rose, as it always did, as it always would. And I lived, and the world I knew died."

The first words of the novel and the first words of Tai's journal drew me into a whirl of friendship and support, trust and mistrust, religion and court intrigue, healing and sorcery, ambition and renunciation and always loyalty to the sisters of jin-shei, even to the death.

The magic of Alexander's prose enticed me into several late nights to follow the intertwined lives of the eight sisters. I became a shadow following their living and loving, and even hoping that what was to be somehow might not become.

Alexander takes the liberty in her mythical kingdom of introducing an evil, handsome sorcerer, a disfigured and powerful King of the Beggars, and a lonely, crafty Empress, all of whom crave personal power and destroy to attain it. However, it is Tai, the quiet, joyful jin-shei sister who loves the most and is loved the most, who ties them all together. She is the one, towards the end of the story, who is able to clear a path after the chaos of intrigue and unrest towards a more stable and peaceful kingdom.

Women's friendships make a difference in our world. Here is a story of how women's friendships change a mythical and engrossing history. Mystery, romance, violence, magic, adventures, characters who could be our friends, women with amazing skills and unbounded devotion to one another. What more could one ask? This is a book which draws us into its depth and magic and holds us to the last words:

"And then they sat and watched in wonder, the old woman and the two children, as the stars shimmered into life, one by one, in the summer sky."

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