LLittle, Brown and Company
Is a character's genre their destiny? In the case of The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, an orphan crossing an inhospitable landscape on a quest for revenge, a troupe of magicians who have fallen in with an assassin, and a woman whose past is unavoidably catching up to her future all occupy different genre interpretations of a particular story: Western, gothic fantasy, thriller, and even romance.
Meanwhile, the genre each character represents has much to do with whether they achieve their goals, live or die, fall in love, or lose everything.
There's a lot to love in this expansive debut novel from Tom Lin. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a truly cinematic Western. Its vistas and action sequences are perfectly designed for fans of graphic novels and the big screen alike. Similarly, the body count is crafted for an audience that enjoys adrenaline's pulse in its ears. Lin's wordcraft is deft and painterly, whether he's describing a fight scene or a desert. But genre expectations that could have broadened narrative horizons flatten many of the characters into archetypes, rather than elevating them to memorable story arcs of their own.
Ming Tsu's titular character is a Chinese orphan raised and trained by a white man to become an assassin in the-post Civil War western United States. The book opens as Ming has just killed a man, stolen his gun, and is trudging across the salt flats of Utah, slowly dying from dehydration. Two years prior, our hero swore to kill five men and rescue his wife, Ada, after those men snatched her away and set Ming to ten years hard service building the Pacific Rail line for marrying a white woman. Ming will not vary from his path: he is a determined survivor on a singular quest in a landscape that is inhospitable in more ways than one.
Westerns are not known, as a genre, to be hospitable to those who fall outside of colonialism's traditional frame. In recent years, the genre has begun to transform, widening its lens, reclaiming the territory Zane Grey and Charles Portis viewed as empty and ripe for the taking, cleaning up generations of whitewashing, and telling the stories of those who were once excluded from the picture — Black lawmen, Latinx ranchers, Native American scholars and monster hunters, and Chinese workers brought from distant countries to build the rail lines and the fortunes of white men. Readers meet that older version of the Western repeatedly in the novel, in the form of lawmen and railmen who cannot tell Ming apart from other Chinese immigrants. That Ming uses these biases to his advantage, while also wrestling with some disconnection from the community because he was raised outside of the language and culture, creates a finely held tension throughout.
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu brings its readers face to face with the consequences of the Pacific Railway expansion, paired with characters who are likely heroes in other genres but who function as archetypes in this one: Members of a traveling magic show that Ming encounters along the journey, who do real miracles while stealing much more than gold. Two female characters who each remain caught up in the bounds of a traditional Western's misogyny. A blind, singularly wise Prophet, also a survivor of the Pacific Rail camps, who can see some of the future, some of the time.
At the crossroads of these stories, Ming is a mythological man out of time, following the Prophet's guidance, while shepherding the magicians to safety. The main arc of The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a journey through the landscape of the real and the fantastic — where acts of survival, magic, revelation, and betrayal are all punctuated by the sound of Ming sharpening his weapons.
One thing I love about Westerns (particularly this new generation of them) is that the landscape doesn't merely try to kill characters; it demands change from them in return for their lives — but Ming's quest for revenge and reconnection with Ada hinges on him not altering course. While that may be the stuff of a heroic Western, it means the story's main character cannot accept that his plan has flaws, and that his own actions may have contributed to those flaws. We understand why Ming does what he does, but when he seems to turn from a potentially redemptive arc, every connection he's forged to other types of stories and the people he's met along the way (those he has not killed) become scenery. A landscape moved through, rather than a possible transformation.
While The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, from its very first pages, states very clearly what it is going to give its readers (crimes, lots of them,) the plot arc feels similarly predestined by its understanding of what the genre requires. At the end of a very long road, the protagonist does not waver. He is offered other options but cannot take them, in part because that's not who he is and in part because the plot demands that he doesn't deviate, despite all evidence that he could.
I am curious to see more of this landscape, its twined fantastical and historical aspects especially, from more points of view — the Prophet's backstory, for instance, and additional members of the troupe.. It is an important, vivid story, with characters led through the landscape by the demands of its plot. The novel is eminently entertaining, and absolutely there for those who love a good fight. For this reader, the variable and evolving arc of the magic troupe's journey, and the tensions between bias and isolation, transformation and predetermination captured my imagination even more than Ming's revenge plot. I hope we see more of all these stories from Tom Lin in the future.
Fran Wilde is an author, reviewer, and essayist. She directs the genre fiction MFA program at Western Colorado University. You can find her online at franwilde.net.