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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

The Chinese Magus

In ancient China, Governor Xiang Li contemplates his realm, his administration, his philosophy – and the heavens. An astronomer, he regularly escapes from day-to-day cares via an “inner kingdom” – a rose-scented, turret enclave in semi-darkness at the end of a long, spiral staircase. A servant, Kwon Ru, has placed food and drink before him, but Xiang Li’s gaze wanders beyond this earth:

“Putting such thoughts out of his mind he moved to the work table where Ru had set in order his charts of the star mansions. Soon he was deeply absorbed… Xian Li checked measurements and angles on the charts and compared them with the position of the Moon in the Mansions. White Tiger of the East, he thought. The Mansion of Autumn. He rather thought that the anomaly which had first caught his attention earlier in the year was somewhere between the Mansion’s ‘Stomach’ and ‘Hairy Head’”…

The strange presence in the night sky – “the anomaly” – is a mysterious star in the western sky, which draws Xiang Li away from his home, his work and his wife – beckoning him on a pilgrimage across the Steppes, the Torugot Pass, the Tien Shan Mountains, and the Bactrian Plateau to Samarkand; and from Samarkand, on to the lands of the Middle-Eastern Roman Empire, and to a humble stable at a remote place near Jerusalem – Bethlehem.

The author of this remarkable novel is Richard Yeo, a former Royal Naval officer who has now turned to the genre of the historical novel – or perhaps a new invention: the historical novel that unites past events with a thirst for the esoteric – for the mysteries and epiphanies of life. The Chinese Magus is the story of one man’s quest; his response to the irresistible pull of the mysterious star that heralds the birth of Christ; his journeying through the snowstorms and emptiness of vast trackless lands – the caravan procession in which he travels dwindling with each great obstacle or tempest.

Many characters accompany Xiang’s story, not least the brutal, fearless Dorba Tembay whose job it is to lead the party through the dangerous mountain route – and the manipulative Eunuch Ping, who would dearly love his master never to return. But always at Xiang’s side is his female servant, Te Zhu, who endures the privations of the trek – silently surviving what seems like an impossible expedition. We also meet villagers, nomads, Roman soldiers, and even a brutal tax-collector – supported by a brigade of soldiers – who, on the return journey, fails to recognise the once immaculately-dressed administrator and ruler. Richard Yeo provides a very satisfying twist, to this and many other episodes – as Xiang Li, now changed by his experience at Bethlehem, sets many wheels in motion around him.

With a clear, beautiful style and shaping of an unusual story of far-off lands and ancient times, Richard Yeo’s Chinese Magus is one of the best, most intriguing new works to have appeared on our bookshelves for a considerable time.

Stuart Millson

The Chinese Magus By Richard Yeo, Top Hat Books, 310 pages, paperback, £11.99.

ISBN 978-1-78535-239-3