Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Fiction
Zheng Yi Sao or “wife of Zheng” – this is how history remembers this 19th-century woman. But who was she? How did she go from lowly prostitute to leader of a pirate confederation? These are questions that Larry Feign answers in his retelling of her story.
The first seven years of Shek Yang’s life are unremarkable. She is the daughter of a boat couple, a family that lives and works on the water. Her mother raises her to be a good daughter, one who will eventually marry and raise a family of her own. Her father teaches her the ways of the sea, since he has no sons. But life changes when her mother dies in childbirth. Her father incurs debts that necessitate the selling of Yang into slavery and she becomes a flower boat girl. Her beauty and skills at pleasuring men bring her sufficient sums to buy her freedom. Her shame continues into adulthood, for she knows no other trade and has vowed long ago never to marry or to have children.
In the sixth year of Emperor Ka-hing’s reign, seedy junks with tiger eyes upend Yang’s world. Boat people and villagers flee for the safety of the temple, but those who live on land look down upon Yang, slamming the door before she can enter. Taken by the pirates, she knows exactly what will become of her. She will be sold back into slavery because there is no one to pay her ransom. Death seems a better option, but she refuses to succumb without a fight. Her defiance disrespects Cheng Yat, leader of the pirates. Rather than putting her to death, he takes her as his own and she becomes his possession to do with as he wishes.
Yang hates the sea, but it is now the world in which she must survive. Boredom is a constant companion. As Cheng’s wife, some pirates show small overtures of acceptance. Others see her merely as a usurper. She finally decides she must do something to occupy her days. The powerful and essential, but neglected, guns rouse her curiosity and she convinces the master gunner to teach her all he knows even though these weapons are the domain only of men. During a battle, one of the assailants attacks the master gunner. Yang slays the attacker. The act gains her more acceptance among her fellow pirates, but forever alters her soul. She is now a pirate, a killer, and there is no going back.
As the days pass, she also observes that Cheng is being cheated and that there must be better ways to make money than constantly hunting for prey. His fleet of five junks preys upon the same vessels all the other pirates seek. Grand ideas and dreams of forming a pirate empire begin to emerge, but implementing them will require time and the wisdom to convince Cheng that her way is the right way – a reality that leads to contention. Sometimes, the consequence of a wish granted is the payment of a dear and often unforeseen price.
Opening the cover of this book is like stepping into a vivid painting of a bygone era. Through visual imagery and melodic prose, Feign transports us back to the first decade of 19th-century China. He masterfully depicts the world of Asian piracy, in a way that is both familiar and foreign. Many pirates populate this tale, but each has distinctive qualities that make the character stand out in different ways. By book’s end, we feel as if we know the real Yang. We may not always like her, but we admire and respect her for what she’s able to achieve in spite of her past and the twists that fate dealt her.
Those readers familiar with the real Zheng Yi Sao or Cheng I Sao will not recognize the names Feign uses. Rather than use those names which come from Mandarin, he employs Cantonese versions since that was the language of the people who dwelt on the south coast of China. He also includes a character list, glossary, and map for readers.
The story unfolds from Shek Yang’s perspective, detailing her life from childhood to the day in which she becomes the leader of the pirate confederation. Feign artfully weaves festivals, a typhoon, war, superstitions, Chinese customs, ambushes, fireboats, and the pirates’ struggle with the navy into this tale. Perhaps the strangest custom involves Yang’s pregnancy. The most gut-wrenching scene is the one depicting Cheng’s disappearance. For history buffs, there is the Tay-Son Rebellion in Vietnam and the pirate captivity of John Turner. The Flower Boat Girl provides compelling answers to the mysteries surrounding Yang and Cheng. This haunting, yet eye-opening tale is as “Beautiful as a butterfly, fierce as a tiger.” (Loc 344 of 6794, Chapter 2)
Review Copyrighted ©2021 Cindy Vallar
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