by Mingmei Yip
Kensington, May 2012
From the inside flap:
Once upon a time in China, the most beautiful and gifted women were known as “skeleton women”–the ultimate femmes fatales who could bring a man to his knees, or to his doom…
When Camilla, a young orphan girl in Shanghai, is adopted and brought to live in luxury, it seems like a stroke of luck. But as Camilla grows to womanhood, she realizes that her “rescue” was part of gang leader Big Brother Wang’s scheme. Camilla is trained in singing, dancing, knife-throwing, and contortion–all to attract the attention of Wang’s enemy, the ruthless Master Lung.
Forced to become Master Lung’s mistress, Camilla meets two other intriguing women. Shadow is a magician and rival for Master Lung’s affections, while Rainbow Chang dresses like a man and wields power through her incendiary gossip column. Both pose risks to Camilla’s safety and status. But an even greater danger comes in the form of Master Lung’s eldest son, Jinying, who despises his father’s violent lifestyle–but loves Camilla. Only by plotting to eliminate Lung can she make her escape, but at what cost?
In Skeleton Women, Camilla tells her story in the first-person point of view, using The Art of War by Sunzi and the Thirty-Six Stratagems as backdrops for the way she lives her life and the decisions she makes as a skeleton woman.
This book was both interesting and maddening: I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the parts of the Chinese culture that were focused on in the story, and I was really ticked off at the way the women were treated and pitted against one another. It’s really depressing to read about women who think their only worth comes from their beauty, their talents, or the way they can destroy one another through gossip. Camilla and Shadow really didn’t seem to have much of a choice, either–they both came from poor backgrounds and were forced to be dependent on other people for their livelihoods, although they didn’t end up much better off in the long run.
The plot was pretty good, although I’m not sure there was as much tension in it as Yip intended there to be. Being a spy in a dangerous enemy’s lair would be scary as hell, but I didn’t feel all that nervous about Camilla’s outcome for some reason. The possibility of Camilla’s death was written about numerous times throughout the story, but the feeling wasn’t there for me. Nevertheless, I still wanted to keep reading to find out whether or not Camilla would escape the hold both gangsters had on her.
I did have a lot of empathy for Camilla and Shadow when it came to their emotions, though. Both women had been trained–professionally and by their life circumstances–to compartmentalize their emotions. As a spy, Camilla couldn’t afford to fall in love with anyone for her own physical safety. Shadow couldn’t afford to fall in love with just anyone for her own financial safety. Both women had to use all of their energy to fight for status in a world where status means everything. Neither woman could afford to let her guard down for one minute and truly enjoy herself and her life. Their beauty and their talents weren’t going to last forever–everyone grows old eventually–so both women had to do what they could, in a relatively short amount of time, to guarantee that they would be okay in later years. The amount of stress they had to deal with was monumental. I can only imagine what it must feel like to live that way. There are other things that happened that made me feel terrible for Camilla and Shadow that I can’t mention without giving too much of the story away. Their stories were just heartbreaking.
Rainbow Chang was certainly an interesting character. Her gender and sexuality were ambiguous, and I liked that no one seemed to care. In this country, all kinds of things are said about people who don’t fit neatly into specific gender categories, but in Shanghai (at least in this story), no one made a big deal about Rainbow Chang at all. I don’t know enough about Chinese culture to know if this is more widely accepted there than in this country, or if Rainbow Chang was left alone because people were afraid of her taking them down in her gossip column. Whatever the reason, I loved that her lifestyle was generally accepted and not made a big deal of. Bravo.
While I didn’t necessarily feel a lot of suspense in Skeleton Women, and while I think a couple of parts of the plot should have been expanded upon, I enjoyed it quite a bit and I’m glad I read it. I like learning about other countries and cultures, and the ways in which people’s lives are different from mine–it helps me to better understand the world and it helps me to keep things in perspective. I’m definitely going to be looking into Mingmei Yip’s other books in the future.
(To learn more about Mingmei Yip, please visit her website.)
**If you choose to purchase this title using the links below, I will receive a small percentage of the sale (to be used toward site maintenance and buying more books).
I received a copy of this book from the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review.