The Chinese Spymaster by Hock G. Tjoa is a historical spy thriller written in a different manner than one usually encounters with this genre. Spymaster Wang of the PRC Intelligence Service learns of a North Korean attempting to sell a nuclear weapon, and that five other illicit arms dealers are doing the same. Though the trail is murky, Wang learns that the ultimate buyer in all six transactions is a group of Pashtuns of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan who it is suspected plan to use it as a form of blackmail to gain independence. While the weapon itself poses no security threat to China, the potential fallout of the Pashtuns forcing Afghanistan and Pakistan succeed in their aims, it could encourage China’s own Muslim and other minorities to try the same.
Wang must navigate the Chinese Communist Party’s byzantine and extremely slow bureaucracy, balance competing foreign intelligence services, and protect his country and his own position. Even worse for Wang, a middle age bachelor, he must contend with his friends and their wives who are determined that he ‘meet someone.’
Told primarily from Wang’s point of view, with occasional diversions to other characters who are central to the overall plot, and written in English, but in Chinese style language, it will be difficult at first for the average English language reader (American or UK), but patience is its own reward. The story unfolds much like a traditional Chinese story would unfold, and in the end the reader will be rewarded with a fuller understanding of the murky world of intelligence and foreign relations, as seen through non-Western eyes. That alone would make it a worthwhile read, but the fact that it’s a well-constructed story with tons of suspense and the occasional plot twist, merely adds frosting to a tasty reading treat.
There are a few unwieldy sentences that could have been tightened up, and while it is Chinese custom to address people by nickname, or title and surname, it was a bit disconcerting not to know the full names of the Chinese characters in the story; especially since the Westerners were all fully identified. That, though, doesn’t in any way detract from a compelling story. This is a mystery that will appeal to any reader who like to think.
I give Tjoa 5 stars for his unique spy thriller.