Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ava Lee Kicks Ass: The Water Rat of Wanchai


House of Anansi Press sent me a copy of The Water Rat of Wanchai: an Ava Lee novel, which is the first of a series by Ian Hamilton in Anansi's new Spiderline imprint. I cracked the book a bit apprehensively for a couple of reasons: Ava Lee is a forensic accountant, and numbers are not among my top ten favourite things; a good part of the action takes place in Hong Kong and Bangkok, and I often find that mysteries set in Asia are just not my thing -- I've tried reading David Rotenberg's Zhong Fong series, and I just couldn't empathize with any of the characters or get engaged in the action.

Ava Lee is a compelling character. She is Chinese-Canadian, tiny, highly intelligent, proficient in bak mei -- an ancient form of martial arts taught only to the most gifted students -- and gay. Her employer, who she calls 'Uncle', is a well-connected Hong Kong-based godfather-figure who has implied ties to the Triads. One slight drawback of this being the first of the series is the need to introduce all of this information, which impedes the action somewhat initially. Also, at first I was a bit unsure about how Hamilton was going to generate any suspense, since Ava Lee seems eminently capable of handing most criminals their testicles before they even realize what's what.

This actually turned out to be one of the things I enjoyed most about the book. Because Lee is so self-sufficient, the action is much more subtle and intricate than in many mysteries. She does go from Canada to Hong Kong, to Bangkok, to Guyana, and the drastically different cultures and landscapes are vividly portrayed and integral to the developing plot. The supporting characters are all well-drawn, including Lee's father, with whom she has a complicated relationship as a daughter of a 'second wife'.

The book avoids a lot of pitfalls of the female detective genre -- she doesn't brainlessly put herself in dangerous situations just to prove how tough she is (Kathy Reichs, hello?), she doesn't harbour any dark secrets from a tormented past that some hot-shot yet gentle FBI guy (or chick) has to help her overcome, and there are no showy plot twists. It was quite refreshingly different. I really enjoyed watching Ava Lee in action, and I think subsequent books will be even better once the character's backstory is in place and she becomes more familiar.

5 comments:

Patti Murphy said...

Sign me up for that one!

Rachel Cotterill said...

That sounds really awesome - definitely my kind of book! :)

The Empress said...

I've never even heard of this book?? How can that be? I pick up the monthly review sheet at the library.

Thanks for something new.

Patti Murphy said...

Thanks Allison! I'm enjoying it.

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

I'm like Rachel in that I haven't heard of this book. But now I have. it sounds interesting.