It might be cheating, a little, since this particular book was published in the UK and is only spottily available in the USA (but I know Powells in Portland has copies. I know because I was just there and I SAW them...), but it's illustrative of a lot of things.
This was a sequel of sorts, sold on the strength of its predecessor ("The Secrets of Jin Shei") and this synopsis -
The Embers of Heaven
In the story told in “The Secrets of Jin Shei” eight women pledge themselves as jin-shei-bao – sisters in the name of the vow of jin shei, the unbreakable bond, the promise that lasts a lifetime. It is this vow and this sisterhood that shapes their lives, and with that the lives of their country and their world. Once, the power of jin shei was that strong.
Many things change in the course of four hundred years.
Xanshi, the daughter of Tai who was once jin-shei-bao to an Empress, had married a trader; their lives took them far away from Syai, and her children were born in a different place, and their children in a place different from that, until the family, some eleven or twelve generations down the line, returned to Syai.
Tai’s many-times great-granddaughter, Amais, is heir to her poet-ancestress’s manuscripts and her surviving journals – Tai had kept meticulous daily journals all the long years of her life but of some seventy notebooks she left behind when she died only twelve survive, enough to whet Amais’s interest but less than adequate to allow her to piece together Tai’s life and times. The journals are all in jin-ashu, the women’s tongue, taught to Amais (rather sketchily) by her mother – and there are also copies of Tai’s poems, in both jin-ashu and hacha-ashu (this being the everyday writing, in which women had traditionally been illiterate in the past) scripts. Amais, herself a poet and singer of some ability, pores over these and tries to make sense of them – and when her family finally moves to the city of Linh-an she tries to find a way of studying the ancient culture she is heir to… and discovers that many things have changed since Tai walked the city’s streets.
Syai has been ground between the millwheels of history, and a long-ago reform-minded Emperor had decreed that all in his realm should be literate. Schools had been opened, and both the male and the female were taken into their fold – where the women of Syai, hitherto traditionally illiterate in the hacha-ashu script used for everyday trade, commerce and communication in the land, were finally taught how to read and write in that script and brought to apparent parity with their male counterparts. However, the underlying effect of this – and one not unwelcome to the reformist Emperor with ulterior motives – was the abrupt degeneration of the jin-ashu script and the knowledge of the secret women’s tongue, especially in more “modern” households who no longer saw the need to perpetuate something so obsolete. When the printing press was brought into common usage in Syai, jin-ashu went into an even steeper decline, since jin-ashu was rarely printed and remained a language of pen and ink and a gracious hand. It began to disappear, and with it the underlying strength of the bond of jin-shei sisterhood, bereft of the core around which it formed. The concept, once so powerful and so binding, declined into something else, something that is barely an echo of what it had once been – for instance, the women plying their trade from the same ‘tea house” considered themselves “jin-shei-qwan”, or “house sisters”, but that sisterhood didn’t survive the drifting of one “sister” from one house of pleasure to another where she would acquire a whole new set of sisters forsaking the ones she had left behind. Other professional women – for instance, midwives – sometimes used it as an equivalent to a guild to which they would all belong and under which they would perform their work. It’s a more pragmatic land, more practical, there is far less concern with the trappings of status in terms of dress and accessories . Women who used to take pride in long hair that had never been cut now crop it short into more workaday styles, clothes are less concerned with beauty or ceremony than with practical application – and the only women who still pay attention to such things as the correct gown for every occasion or the glitter of jewels in their hair are the courtesans in the tea houses where the “old ways” seem to linger still.
In the meantime, the social and political mores in Syai kept pace with economic and scientific development. Amais’s Linh-an has gas lighting, newspapers, and a well-developed bureaucratic and commercial communication system between such cities as remain part of the diminished “Empire”. The Emperor is by now little more than a figurehead, surrounded by pomp and circumstance and trotted out for state occasions, but the country is being run by the Council of Nine, who are chosen (but only from a select social stratum) by the people every nine years. The power of the Temple has also declined, and the availability of certain kinds of knowledge is strictly controlled.
On the face of it, women are far more equal in society than they had been before – but something was taken from them, a deeper power, the sense of the interconnectedness of all things, the ability to weave their fates and influence events. Jin-ashu, the women’s language, remains alive only in a few specialized and constrained women’s circles – for instance the midwives and healers, and the ‘women of easy virtue’. This is so to the extent that Amais, when she begins asking questions about the language and the customs of the ancient women’s culture, gets asked by one disgusted official, “Why would you want to go learning a language in which worn-out whores write of their worn-out dreams?”
But there was more to Tai’s world than this. The foundation of an Empire once rested on jin-shei and its customs. Amais, with both the clear vision of the outsider looking in and the deep and instinctive bond to her ancestral culture, knows that there is more to jin-ashu than ‘worn-out dreams’ – and makes it her crusade to reinvent the Women’s Country.
Her dream is complicated and almost annihilated by a storm of history – she and her family had been in Syai barely a handful of years before they, with the rest of the land, got caught up in the whirlwind known as the Golden Rising, a people’s revolution fated to destroy much that was one beautiful and gracious and valuable. Responding to the call of the times, Amais pledges the undying vow to the land itself and spends herself in seeking Syai’s salvation from the reign of blood and fear that is the revolution.
In the Rising, Amais’s path crosses those of other lives.
From the Teahouse of the Silver Moon, Xuelien and Yingchi – one a ‘worn-out whore’ from the official’s dismissive remark, a woman now in her seventies who has (much like Tai) kept jin-ashu journals all her life and has been concubine to powerful men with powerful connections, and the other a young courtesan barely starting out in the Nightwalker life, eighteen years old and full of the fire of ideals and convictions, not yet jaded by what her life will force her to endure.
From the Guard, much diminished from what it once was, IIloh, a young Guard. IIloh is that most dangerous of things, the disappointed idealist – when the revolution comes he becomes the zealot in the ranks and the convert who, in the manner of converts everywhere, proceeds to prove the depths of his conversion by becoming more terrible than all the rest. IIloh, who wanted a woman whose elevated social status made her unreachable to him, loved by another whose own social status is so far below him that he barely knows she is there, becomes Katai, the Scourge, and is guilty of appalling atrocities before he is given a chance of redemption. When Iloh attempts to justify himself to Amais with a sonorous “History will judge us!”, she responds, “History has judged you” – she knows this, because she knows that the things she herself will leave as her legacy will prove her right.
From the Great Temple of Linh-an, Lian, a young priestess in training. With the Temple much in decline, and with the Rising seemingly intent on pounding what remains into dust and ashes, Lian is doubly in peril as being of the religious caste herself and being descended from a scholarly family when the mood of the dangerous Rising is turning against scholarship and teachers. Her grandfather, a Temple Sage, was brother to a woman who married into the Council families of Syai, and Lian is cousin to many of the Council children – but this may not save her from destruction, and may in fact face her with harder choices than she may otherwise have had in her life – forced, perhaps, to weigh her past, her memories, her principles, her kin against her own survival.
And, last but not least, Zhenshi, daughter to the First in the Council of Nine, high-born, pampered, spoiled, discontented, and dreaming of a world where there was more to life than just a quest for power. She is cousin to Lian, the unattainable beloved of Iloh, and her path crosses that of Amais in unexpected ways as Amais pursues her quest. Between Zhenshi and Amais springs the first true jin shei bond in, perhaps, many centuries – and with it comes a hard choice. In the teeth of the Golden Rising, where loyalties can shift without warning, in a time and place where the giving up of someone who was a trusted friend or even a jin shei sister can be the only thing that stands between Zhenshi’s own survival, it is a choice of bitter betrayal or loyalty to something that is a powerful and binding thing but may, in the new world that the revolution is building, be no more than an anachronism…
Out of the fires of revolution and destruction Amais and the people with whom she shares her life bring the resurrection of something gentle and yet immensely powerful, a breath of hope which will shape the future of all Syai – the return of a way of life measured and controlled through the bonds of love and nurture and not bought with blood on the point of a sword, of a world where honour and loyalty are not in thrall to fanaticism and where it is possible to find one’s own small place of peace to dwell in. The life paths of these unlikely companions are a story of love, loss, devotion, fear, cruelty, depravity and redemption. They reach out to both create and destroy, making choices that will lead them to decisions which may affect the very existence of those whom they once revered or held dear. They will shape their destinies and those of the people who share their lives – they will kill and they will save, they will lie and they will learn when and how they need to tell nothing but the truth, to save their lives or their souls.
In the midst of the drama of fiery conflict they bring back to life a great and wonderful thing, something that was dying, that was almost dead – the once and future vow, a memory of an ancient glory, stirring the embers of Heaven back into a blazing flame…
THE EMBERS OF HEAVEN
ONE: The Language of Lost Things
TWO: The Street of Red Lanterns
THREE: Paper Swords and Iron Butterflies
FOUR: The Golden Rising
FIVE: Long Night
SIX: Ghost Road
SEVEN: The Embers of Heaven
I am appalling at writing synopses before I've written the book. Almost nothing in the synopsis as it stands stayed the same. Even the titled sections of the book as set out just above got shuffled, changed around, reorganized, and culled. What we originally had as seven sections turned out to be four, plus a fifth much shorter almost epilogue-y section - and they went in a different order than set out above - instead of One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six Seven we had (to give them their original number) One-Three-Two-Four-Seven.
I wrote the entire book with a certain ending, and that last section originally looked quite different from what was finally published - an entire line of denouement was excised, and only the bare bones of the thing were left, beautiful in their starkness.
Don't ever ask me to write a synopsis. We will all weep tears of frustration at the end of it.
Currently working on a new project, outlined only insomuch as I need to know a timeline. The rest just accretes as we go along.
In retrospect, I much prefer writing the book first and the synopsis later. It comes much more naturally that way. But there you are, for what it's worth. And you can look for the book itself at Powells, or order it from the UK, and occasionally copies surface on Amazon USA - if you want to read what it ultimately became, and compare it to the synopsis that sold the story.