Enough Already: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin

Classification can be a challenge. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is clearly a western. The hero travels from Utah through Nevada to California in the 1860’s riding a horse. So, clearly a western. He’s doing this to get revenge on the five men who separated him from his wife. So, revenge fantasy plot. Think The Revenant. But throw in a healthy dose of magical realism–so much that you have to wonder just where the line is between that and outright fantasy fiction. Maybe this is just a long allegory, nothing real really going on at all. Or mash-up. Is this book a genre mash-up? That can be fun, so I’ll play along/read along. (Hop-a-long? Git-a-long)*

The hero, Ming Tsu, travels west with a companion, an old blind man with no memory who has the gift of prophecy. For the most part, he just tells Ming Tsu which members of his party will die at any particular time and how much longer the horses will live. Kind of a magical Walter Houston character. For the majority of the book, Ming Tsu travels with a side show run by a man who is continually reborn in a Nebraska hotel in 1858. The acts include a fully tattooed island “pagan” who can change his appearance more-or-less at will, a woman who cannot be burned and a young deaf-mute who can speak into the minds of anyone he is near, one at a time or the whole group at once. The two strange hands in the group also have magical abilities but are not part of the show.

That’s a lot to ask of a reader in a western. I’d accept it in a fantasy, sounds a lot like the Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival in The Last Unicorn a book I’ve read and re-read many times. Throw in Ming Tsu’s incredible ability to kill his opponents, even when he is outnumbered, and you have a book asking for more than its share of suspension of disbelief. Sooner or later someone surely has to shoot the hero/gunslinger.

Eventually, I was reluctant to play along.

But I did read through to the end.

It’s not advisable to expect a happy ending in a revenge fantasy. Read The Revenant to see what I mean. (Seriously, read The Revenant. It’s a wonderful book.) I’ll try not to spoil anything, though that is the name of this blog, but I think I can say that The Revenant shows both the hero and the reader that revenge, no matter how justified, is ultimately an empty endeavor. That’s not something The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu succeeds in doing, at least for me. To be fair, I don’t think that’s Tom Lin’s goal.

Ming Tsu loses his wife because the five men in question make it clear to her that he is an assassin who works for a major crime lord. (I confess, I lost the thread of the story some, so this may not be exactly right.) She goes back to her father because she cannot live with a murderer even though she once loved him. She marries a white man, one of the men Ming Tsu targets, and has his son. When Ming Tsu finally finds her, she refuses to go back to him as she cannot be with a murderer.

I was pretty much on her side by this point. One could argue that the men we see Ming Tsu kill all deserved it on some level, but he admits to killing over 200 men at the behest of mentor/master who raised him. Ming Tsu is not a good guy, in spite of how many times the people in the side show say that he is. He’s not the sympathetic brother in The Sisters Brothers whom I rooted for right up to the end of in spite of some pretty awful murders.

You could read this book as a fantasy/allegory about a Chinese character getting revenge for all the wrongs that were done to Chinese immigrants during the 19th century. It may work better as an allegory than as a more realistic western. Earlier this year I read the terrific history of the Chinese immigrants who built the western half of the first transcontinental railroad, Ghosts of Gold Mountain by Gordan H. Chang. One thing Mr. Chang writes about is how difficult it is to find any information about this group of men. They left behind almost no written records either in America or back home in China. He describes instead, how he had to recreate the details of their lives without direct evidence. It makes for an interesting piece of history.

It’s clear from Mr. Chang’s book and from what I know of American history that there was a lot to seek revenge for. Maybe that is what Mr. Lin is doing through Ming Tsu.

But did he have to kill so many horses?

In a book that flows as deep with human blood as The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu does, it probably says something about me that I was upset by all the horse deaths, but I was. Maybe because they died from being ridden into the desert without water until they fell down and never got up again while their riders continued on their quest for revenge. It felt a bit soulless to me, frankly.

I wanted to like this book. I did like it for a long time. Maybe if a few of the above items could have been reduced a bit, downplayed somewhat somehow, I could have played along. But, by the time I got to the end it was all too much for me.

If you disagree, please let me know in a comment. I’d love to hear from the book’s defenders.

*For several years, I ran The Hop-a-long, Git-a-long, Read-a-Long Western Reading Challenge at my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. Participation was always on the small side. A lot of people are reluctant to read westerns. In spite of this review, it’s still a genre I enjoy.