I received a digital advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Lin’s debut novel The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, Ming is an assassin on a quest for vengeance, after his wife was taken from him and he was forced to work on a railroad. It’s the Wild West, and Chinese men aren’t allowed to marry white women. Ming vows revenge, but to do so he has a lot of ground to cover. He ends up traveling with blind clairvoyant man and a group of magic show performers as he moves westward toward California, determined to rescue his love and exact revenge on those who betrayed him.
I was initially intrigued by the premise of this—some much needed Asian representation in the Western genre, as well as the Count of Monte Cristo–esque elements—but ended up having a very different experience reading this book than I expected.
First off, I really wanted to like Ming more as a character, but he didn’t really do it for me. He’s not exactly a nuanced, complex character, which isn’t a great trait for a protagonist. Furthermore, it was hard to feel invested in his revenge mission when we barely got to see his happy life with his wife Ada. That, combined with his assassin background, made it difficult for me to want him to succeed; he wasn’t likeable enough.
Most of the other characters weren’t likeable either. I appreciated the diversity in the magic show performers, but even that representation struck me as a bit flawed. None have particularly good characterization and development, and the way Ming viewed especially Proteus was a bit xenophobic in my eyes. Ming also struck me as a bit xenophobic against Chinese immigrants. While I was glad to see him make a point to tell people that he’s not technically a “Chinaman,” being born and raised in the United States only speaking English, his attitude still came across as viewing himself superior to those actually from China, so… yikes.
I think the only side character I felt was presented well was Hunter, the orphaned boy with hearing loss. Ming’s interactions with him, as well as his attempts to learn to sign with him, were nice moments. I wish all his relationships with other characters were as good.
More than the characters, the plot felt a little meandering. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t invested in the characters? Either way, it felt like a lot of violence and struggle with little character development, and little payoff. The ending, while intense and heart-pounding as it should have been, was both startling and disappointing. All that build-up, for almost nothing but lots of bullets and almost no emotions from Ming.
I will say, though, after all that negativity, that I did enjoy the magical realism aspects of the story. Some of the characters have supernatural abilities, which were cool to see. The prophet got a little tiresome in his crypticness, but I still found him an intriguing person. And while I got almost no explanation for any of the odd events—what on earth was that part with the albino cougar?!—these were the parts I felt most engaged with.
In the end, I wanted to enjoy The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu way more than I actually did. Unlikeable characters coupled with little development or emotion made investment in the plot problematic. The action scenes were sufficiently intense, though the excessive run-on sentences ended up impeding my reading comprehension a little, and the gore got tedious. I walked away from the book feeling like it had been a cool premise, but the execution was lacking.
Overall rating: 6/10
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu will be published on June 1st, 2021!