The Chinese Spymaster

Rated 4.17/5 based on 6 reviews
Chinese Intelligence uncovers a North Korean trying to sell a nuclear device. Then they find five other dealers trying to do the same for--the Pashtuns. Is this a "Pashtun Spring"? A realignment of geopolitical power in Central Asia? The Spymaster must also confront a vendetta within the Party and he determination of of his Old Friends and their wives to make him a match. More

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About Hock G. Tjoa

Hock was born in Singapore to Chinese parents. He studied history and classics at Brandeis and Harvard and taught the History of Modern Europe and of Asian Political Thought at the University of Malaya. He has published George Henry Lewes, a Victorian mind and "The Social and Political ideas of Tan Cheng Lock." He is married with two adult daughters and now lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. In 2010, he published a selection and translation of the Chinese classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms under the title "The Battle of Chibi." In 2011, he is publishing an adaptation of Lao She's "Teahouse" as "Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away, a Play." He published "The Chinese Spymaster," the first of a planned three volume series, and "The Ingenious Judge Dee" in 2013

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Ronesa Aveela reviewed on June 28, 2015

The Chinese Spymaster has the feel of the former TV series “24,” with the clock ticking while governments attempt to thwart the Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan from purchasing nuclear weapons. The focus of the book is primarily from the perspective of the Chinese. It delves into their fear of what will happen to their own country if the Pashtuns are successful.

The story is an intriguing look into political concerns, the Butterfly Effect, about how the actions of one nation can affect what might occur in others. It shows nations working to thwart the Pashtuns from achieving autonomy, not because the other nations care what the Pashtuns do, but because the formation of this new territory may cause other groups within their own countries to want the same thing.

Although the plotline reminds me of “24,” it takes place over a longer period of time. However, unlike “24,” this book moves along at a much slower pace, mainly due to the fact that much of it is written in a telling manner. This is not necessarily bad. I enjoy a story that slowly unwinds, as long as I am learning something in the process, as I do with this book. “Telling” is a way to get information quickly to the reader without long bouts of dialog and drawn-out scenes. Its downside is that it's less personal and distances the reader from the scene and characters. In this respect, I didn’t gain a closeness to the characters. It felt more journalistic, which again, is not a bad thing.

The one thing that slowed the story in a negative way was the author often repeated information from the viewpoint of the different agencies involved in tracking the sales of the nuclear devices. But in all I think it will be a book those who like to read about the politics of nations will enjoy.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
(reviewed 5 days after purchase)
K. Elizabeth McCoy reviewed on March 9, 2014

As a first time reader of Hock Tjoa, I was very pleased with The Chinese Spymaster. I feel that this novel is a great and perfect for those of us who love suspense stories. The characters were well developed and the plot was well executed. Also, you can tell that Tjoa did his research on the inner workings and procedures of the different intelligence agencies as well as the political climates of the different geographical locations mentioned in the book.

I appreciate that this novel isn't littered with action scene after scene. Instead, they are placed and written skillfully. I found myself kind of rooting for the Pashtuns to get their independence, but at the same time like Spymaster Wang and his team, I didn't want them to earn it through acquiring and using the nuclear devices. I love that Tjoa did a great job of sprinkling of mini conflicts throughout the story so that the whole novel isn't solely just about trying to prevent the Pashtuns from setting off a domino affect. I definitely recommend this book.
(reviewed 9 days after purchase)
Rebecca Larsen reviewed on March 8, 2014

4 star

an intriguing adventure into the life of a Chinese Spymaster. Travel along on his journey to verify and stop the sale of a nuclear weapon to the Pashtuns. This story delves into what may be needed to detect and prevent drastic changes for any nation. This is a highly realistic story, with great character interaction and an exciting plot.

I was amazed at the depth of information that the author found during his research for this story. I look forward to reading more works from Mr. Tjoa.
(reviewed 11 days after purchase)
Jake Thompson reviewed on Jan. 26, 2014

One of the strangest things happened while I was reading this book. One of the main plotlines (regarding the Pashtun tribes) simply disappeared, never to be seen again.

While reading this book I invested a lot of time and interest in the Pashtuns. They were so fascinating that I ended up researching them online. Their plight in the book’s narrative was conveyed in such excruciating detail that I naturally assumed they would become one of the main players of the novel. Yet they were tossed to the side, as the novel’s chapters centered more and more on Wang, the titular Spy Master, and his allies and foes in the Chinese government.

The book goes into satisfying detail covering the backgrounds of its major players, even elaborating on the backgrounds of minor characters that you never hear from again. Wang and his associates study the Pashtun case (dubbed Operation Kashgar) in great detail, and the reader is challenged to keep up with the identities of an endless stream of characters.

In “The Chinese Spymaster,” a variety of international arms dealers try and sell nuclear weapons to the Pashtuns. (Who are the Pashtuns? Think of the 1985 National Geographic cover girl with the bright green eyes). The Pashtun tribes want a nuclear warhead, because they think that they can use it as a threat to successfully secede from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The unification of scattered tribes via a powerful “Talisman,” aka a nuclear warhead, is an interesting story in itself, but that particular story turned out to be a flash in the pan. It simply became the story’s “hook,” though which Wang and his Beijing cohorts could do their Scooby-Doo intelligence work. At first the reader was introduced to Pashtun society in great detail, and Pashtuns were humanized and explored as individuals with various hopes and dreams, morals and ideals. Yet after only a few chapters, they were objectified into the “Other.” In other words they were all lumped together and denied their individuality. On the other hand, we continued to explore Chinese and Western characters on a personal basis, which allowed each Anglo or Sino character to retain their individuality and humanity without becoming an objectified stereotype.

Within the novel, Pashtun social/political intrigue was fascinating. The tribal intrigue centered mainly around Gholam a shopkeeper; Gholam’s nephew Ali, a city boy; Abdur-rahman, a man imprisoned by Pakistani soldiers; Abdur-rahman’s bitter soldier son, Najmudin; Humayan, a captain; and an apothecarist, whose daughter Humayan was in love with.

These Muslim characters were portrayed in a negative light as informants—one and all—to intelligence agencies of neighboring countries such as Pakistan and China. Only the young soldier Najmudin refused to be a sell-out, and remained faithful to his dream of erasing the Durand Line, unifying his tribes, and seceding from the oppressive Pakistani and Afghan regimes.

I tend to root for oppressed underdogs, so I got swept up into the romantic Pashtun dream of independence from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because of this I was quite vexed when the story of Najmudin and his fellow Pashtuns came to an unexpected screeching halt a third of the way into the book.

Instead of spending so much time on Pashtun characters, only to drop them later, I would have preferred the narrative to have focused on more long term characters such as Hu and Tang. These two were colorful, interesting characters and could have easily had a few chapters all to themselves.

Regarding Spymaster Wang, his reasoning for thwarting the Pashtuns was quite logical and sensible, yet I disagreed with his logic. Wang and his associates were quite capable and brilliant yet sometimes seem cold, dry and heartless. At one point Wang’s close assistant Tang says:

“…Pashtun success in breaking away from Afghanistan and Pakistan to form their own nation-state could encourage ethnic minorities in China, particularly the Tibetans and the Uyghurs.”

Later Wang worries: ‘If the Pashtun tribes, so divided by real or imagined slights and blood feuds, could unify—why not one or another, or all, of the restive minorities in China?’

This fear is repeated many times by various communist Chinese characters as well as their allies. Once again, Wang worries:

“I fear that the Pashtuns may set an example for separatist groups in Central Asia, or even some of our minorities.”

Commissar Cai echoes Wang’s sentiment:

“…the minorities want freedom that they think we, Hans, are withholding from them. They do not realize that such freedom is denied to all of us.”

As a democratic American, I don’t see the logic of that comment, and maybe as a Westerner I don’t have a clear understanding Asian politics. All I do know is that for years I’ve heard of the Chinese government’s brutality towards the Tibetan people. So I was annoyed when Wang, who is supposed to be the book’s hero, repeatedly voiced his wish to repress East Asian minorities, such as Tibetans.

Equally annoying was Wang’s constant recruitment of Asian minorities—such as Uyghurs and Tibetans—for use as two-bit spies. Here’s another passage I found disturbing:

“Those in China harbored a greater resentment to the Han majority than those who had emigrated to adjacent countries. The memory of Chinese insensitivity or injustice had grown faint among the minorities living outside China. They were primarily descended from the Uzbek, Kazakh, or others who had long ago fled China for their own states while these were still part of the Tsar’s empire or of the Soviet Union. But they were marginalized in their own countries, and thus Wang was able to find only ‘passive sources’ among them. They would report on any information that came their way but could not be depended upon to seek out intelligence or carry out ‘covert operations.’”

So our “hero” Wang exploited these pitiful, impoverished people, and then criticized their limited usefulness. Shame.

The last quarter of the book shifted towards Wang’s attempt to stop Kim, a North Korean arms dealer. As a climax scenario I don’t think the North Korean scenes peaked as high as they should have, but as with everything else in this review, it’s just my humble opinion. Moreover, the only China-centered subplot that I truly enjoyed was the one that focused on Kong, Jiang and Wang. This particular subplot became very endearing once you got to the heart of the matter and realized the source of Jiang’s rage towards Wang.

I am fascinated by China and love its culture. Under different circumstances I would have enjoyed “The Chinese Spymaster.” However, the book’s politics towards Chinese minorities had a vileness that kept me from enjoying the narrative. From a practical point of view, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything less from a political spy novel. It’s country versus country, and ethnicity versus ethnicity, and the weaker ones are crushed under the heels of the more dominant ones. Ironically, I see the author speaking truth in this fictitious novel, and I cannot fault him for that. In fact, I love the author’s writing style… I just felt uncomfortable over particular elements of the book. Had I read the book for fun I would have given it five stars, but after a critical read, I can’t give it anything more than a three.

On a final note, “The Chinese Spymaster” is one of the most engaging books that I’ve read in quite a while. It has left me with a lot of food for thought. I am impressed by the author’s intellect and in the near future I intend on perusing some of his other works.
(reviewed 2 days after purchase)
Kenneth Edward Lim reviewed on Jan. 1, 2014
(no rating)
The Chinese Spymaster uses a martial artist's acuity to penetrate the deadly mix of nuclear-hungry Pashtuns and a North Korean arms broker. This read is a slam dunk for those who want to see Red Chinese operatives trying to save the world, for a change.
(reviewed the day of purchase)
Vivek Rajan Vivek reviewed on Dec. 2, 2013

The reality in Central Asia

I read this book since I saw some favourable reviews about it. The book is about the delicate geo-political situation prevailing in Central Asia and how a small issue can turn into something unmanageable unless it is dealt with quickly and tactfully.

The book is peppered with wisdom and one gets a good understanding of the dreams, drives, ambitions, fears and insecurities driving the people of Central Asia. Wonderful people who are being held hostage by their own irrational emotions more than anything else.

It could have been written as an amazing thriller and this is where the author falls short. All the elements are there but it has been presented more as a political narrative than a gripping, suspense filled story. It can be re-written with the help of a wonderful editor and put back on the shelves.

I’m giving it five stars because I learned things I never knew about before. For me it’s all about learning something new when I read a book. Some of the conversations and workings of people in places of power was eye opening indeed. A good read that was worth my time.
(reviewed 29 days after purchase)
Jade Onyx reviewed on Oct. 30, 2013
(no rating)
Not my usual genre of choice to read.

However, I really liked the action-packed fight scenes, the quick sketch of background that gave you depth to each character significant to the story. The book took you places in the East, West and Middle East. So if you are into international spy stuff, the intrigue in this book will keep you guessing.

If you are't into spy stuff usually (like yours truly), then it will take you some time to map things out--since there are some twists and turns in the story that will ultimately make sense in the end.

Overall, I found it quite entertaining and learned a thing or two about different cultures. The author has a nice way of painting these descriptions and landing it in succinct and sometimes humorous ways. Definitely an enjoyable read.
(reviewed 12 days after purchase)
Charles Knightley reviewed on Oct. 7, 2013

Hock G. Tjoa

I read the preview version of this book and was impressed. I've now read the published version and I am very impressed. It's an intriguing story, quite complex but as I said before the writing is clear and the descriptions are very vivid, lifelike and realistic.

Highly recommended.

Charles Knightley
(reviewed 8 days after purchase)

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