“Combine ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ add elements of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and you have this astonishing novel.” — China Books
The novel is set in a fictional land called Syai, based on Imperial China. It follows the lives of eight young women bound together by Jin-shei, a vow of friendship between women, binding them to a lifelong sisterhood that commands more loy alty even than the ties of family.
“I shared my life with a healer, an alchemist, a sage, a soldier, a gypsy, a rebel leader, a loving ghost and an Empress who dreamed of immortality and nearly destroyed us all. The years of sisterhood. The Jin-shei years.” So speaks Tai, one of the eight jin-sheo-bao sisters. Her story, and those of the women her life is entwined with, is one of magic, spirit journeys and a quest for immortality – but mostly it is the story of the women’s lives, shaped by the triumphs and tragedies of their sworn sisterhood.
1. Which Jin-shei sister do you identify with most? Why?
2. Tai makes a promise to the Little Empress as she is dying, a promise which has far-reaching impact on the rest of Tai’s life. Have you ever made such a promise and kept it?
3. When Liudan asks Khailin to do “the unthinkable” in the name of jin-shei, Khailin agrees. Do you agree with Khailin’s decision? Yuet makes a different choice, who do you feel made the correct choice? Why? Would you have followed Khailin’s path or Yuet’s?
4. What is the greatest sacrifice you have ever made to help a friend? Did you compromise your own values?
5. Jin-ashu is the secret language of the jin-shei sisters. It is based on nu-shu, a real women’s written language which existed in China (and is now functionally extinct, other than as an academic interest – but no longer existing in its original form, the one that inspired the version that appears in the novel). What are some other sorts of ‘secret languages’ of women?
6. Jin-ashu (and its real-life counterpart,nu-shu) was used in some ways to subvert the patriarchal power structure in China. What other ways do women reclaim power in patriarchal societies?
7. Liudan can be viewed as emotionally unstable, yet the sisters continue to support her and allow her to influence them all — even above and beyond the bonds of jin-shei. Why?
8. The jin-shei sisters go to great lengths — even the risk of death — to protect one another. What have your friends done for you? In what ways have you supported your friends? Is this a uniquely feminine trait? Are women “predisposed” to form these intense bonds and friendships or is that just a stereotype?
9. Alma Alexander’s characters defy stereotypes. For example, Xaforn is the most powerful warrior, a “killing machine” by her own definition, while Liudan creates her own rules and in fact, rewrites the rulebook for the empire. How are the rest of the sister unique? In what ways have your own friends defied stereotypes?
10. Do you agree that the bonds of friendship can be stronger than blood ties? What are some examples from your own life?
“The Secrets of Jin-shei is a complete original — and a completely magical piece of writing.” — Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine