My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sons of the Republic is a political/crime thriller of merit. Yet, most of that merit is because of its unusual setting: Taiwan.
First, a disclaimer. J.W. Henley is a friend of mine; in fact, he used to write for me when I was a publisher. He was also one of my favourite writers to deal with: Great work, consistent, mature style, polite, friendly, took criticism well. (Like parents, we say we don’t have favourites but it’s actually a lie.)
Now, that disclaimer out of the way, I was excited to hear that Joe was releasing his first novel. I knew the landscape of it, I knew that it would have a strong historical element. And yet I was still pleasantly surprised by this work.
Sons of the Republic is what I would consider a spy thriller. It’s a genre in which it’s tough to compete. There are Genius Level writers in this genre; amongst them two of my favourites: Le Carre and Deighton. Having said that, this is as far from a British spy/thriller as you can get. Henley is Canadian, and is embedded in the Taiwanese culture.
This alone was exciting for me. Even if this book were rubbish – which it’s not – it has merit for the sheer amount of learning about Taiwan as a nation and a culture. I have a suspicion, Henley being the observational writer that he is, that his commentary about Taiwanese culture would be sharp and incisive. At various parts of my life I’ve studied elements of Asian history, from the Chinese Revolution to the roles played by nations during war. How the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chiang Kai-Shek played such a key role in Taiwanese history has never come to my attention. I’m grateful to have this gap closed in my own knowledge.
The story of Sons of the Republic is one of discovery. Without giving the story away, the protagonist’s father is murdered, and the son (Jason) is hell-bent on finding out why. Joining him in this brief, dramatic, and violent struggle, is his best friend Li-Yang Wang. The story starts slowly and winds itself up at a cracking pace, like all great spy books do. The set up is lengthy and essential. Outcomes from such stories are rarely long because once everything is in place, circumstances become strings of firecrackers.
And yet, for all of the great stuff in this book, it’s not as good as it could be. I felt like I didn’t really connect with the protagonist, that the protagonist’s motive was pure but sterile. I connected more emotionally with Li-Yang Wang, a man with obvious pain and a deep, almost spiritual connection that drives everything he does. Jason was far less multidimensional.
There is also a feeling here that Henley struggled with marrying the story and the explanation of culture. However, that is less of a criticism about the writer than it is about the editor. For example, there are some pages where explanations of history or cultural elements interrupt the narrative, and could have been better handled by footnotes or end-notes – some method that allows the story to flow and gives the reader the option. It’s significant enough to mention because it happens enough to paint the writer into the narrative. It is much more powerful when the writer is absent.
This visibility may also simply be because Henley is a Canadian expat in Taiwan: He’s an outsider. He had to learn all of these things about Taiwan, too. It’s possible that he is moved to educate other people about the nation. Sometimes that happens to the detriment of his creation.
Henley is, however, a young writer in terms of his book-publishing career. This is his debut novel, and as far as debuts go it is a meaningful, solid work that deserves attention. From here onwards, I hope that some of those elements of writer maturity come to the fore. If they do, then Henley will very quickly establish himself as a writer of note.