Review of The Heretic Peacekeeper by Jeremy Bai

Book cover of The Heretic Peacekeeper by Jeremy Bai

Wang Fan, a peacekeeper in the Third Earth, wants to protect the people from crooks. The worst crooks, he believes, are evil cultivators. Protecting the public becomes rather difficult when-

Hold on, this book has not even been published yet. How come you’ve read it?

I have an advanced readers’ copy. (UPDATE: the book has been published).

So you’re going to do that song and dance about how you got a free copy in exchange for an honest review?

No.

Huh?

It’s not true. I did not get a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

You got a free copy in exchange for a dishonest review?

No, I did not get a copy in exchange for a review at all. I am under no obligation to review this book.

So… how did you get an advanced readers’ copy?

I read one of the early drafts and gave feedback.

Like… a draft different from the published draft?

Yes. And I’m reading the sequel-

What? WHAT? This book hasn’t been published, and you’re already reading the sequel? That’s not fair!

Yes, it’s fair, giving thoughtful feedback requires more effort than casual reading. Anyway, I read the ARC of The Heretic Peacekeeper so I know what’s in the published version and can give more informed feedback on the sequel.

Is that the only reason?

I wanted to read the final version anyway. But I got an ARC in exchange for giving better feedback on the sequel, not in exchange for a review.

Are there changes between the early draft you read and the about-to-be-published version?

Of course.

Thanks to your feedback?

A little? A bunch of people read the early drafts and gave feedback, and sometimes our comments overlapped. To the extent I had any influence, it was as a chorus member.

Example please.

This novel has a Blade Runner style tech-noir/cyberpunk setting (to get a better sense of what I mean by ‘tech-noir’ watch the opening of Bubblegum Crash). Multiple readers of the early drafts (including me) found it hard to buy that the dystopian-corporation-which-is-also-the-government has such terrible surveillance technology. So Jeremy Bai hung a bunch of lampshades.

Why does the futuristic government-corporation have such terrible surveillance tech?

I don’t know. I want to know. The answer is supposed to be revealed in one of the sequels. It’s so fundamental to the genre that the dystopian-government-corporation-that-controls-everything-and-ditches-civil-liberties has top-notch surveillance tech that this could be a great genre subversion (depending on the forthcoming explanation). This makes the story stand apart from others in this genre.

Okay, so what is the story about?

Wang Fan, a peacekeeper in the Third Earth, wants to protect the people from crooks. The worst crooks, he believes, are evil cultivators. Protecting the public becomes rather difficult when, on the job, they run into Black Corpses (the police who police the peacekeepers), who injure his partner Jakobe and almost kill Wang Fan himself. To get away from the Black Corpses, Wang Fan must flee with Elena, a beautiful woman who also happens to be a cultivator. Now that the Black Corpses have targeted him, Wang Fan expects they will not stop until he is dead. But to survive he needs Elena, a cultivator, and cultivators are evil. Or are they? Maybe turning in Elena is the right thing to do. Or maybe not. To rescue Jakobe and himself, Wang Fan must figure out who to trust, otherwise both Jakobe and himself will be killed… or worse.

So is this Blade Runner style tech-noir, or is it cultivation fantasy?

It’s both. It’s cyberpunkish tech-noir meets cultivation fantasy.

Remind me, what is cultivation fantasy?

It’s a genre that originated in China in which protagonists gain powers using ‘self-cultivation’ based on Taoist magic systems. (Though since Chinese religions are so syncretic, they also draw upon Buddhist cultivation). Here’s an introduction to traditional religious Taoist cultivation. What happens in cultivation fantasy is an extrapolation of that (like, the protagonists might cultivate themselves to the point that they can destroy a galaxy and create a new one from scratch).

Are any galaxies destroyed in this novel?

No, none of the cultivators are depicted as having that level of power (at least in this book). Cultivators don’t always reach the level that they can re-shape galaxies, it depends on the cultivation system the writer develops for the story.

Some cultivation fantasy novels so ridiculously long and full of Chinese cultural concepts that they intimidate English-language readers. Is this novel like that?

No. I think this novel is an accessible introduction to cultivation fantasy for English-speakers who have never tried it. First, the protagonist, Wang Fan, knows little about cultivation, so stuff has to be explained to him.

Aren’t most cultivation fantasy novels in Chinese like that too? Each novel has its own cultivation system.

Well, yes, but Chinese writers operate under the assumption that readers already have a clue about cultivation fantasy. This novel is even more basic in its explanations.

Second, this novel is short. Yes, it’s part of a series, but this first novel is self-contained.

Usually you talk more in-depth about the story when you review fiction.

Ironically, because I know more about this novel than novels I read in the ordinary way, I feel more constrained in what I can say. I don’t want to publicly discuss this story in detail until at least a few months after publication.

Sara, do you like this novel?

Of course I do! There is no way in heck I would have agreed to read an early draft of the sequel if I didn’t like it.

Maybe I shouldn’t say this since I’ve only read part of the sequel (and an early draft to boot), but I suspect I will like the second book even more.

What is your favorite part of the novel?

The worldbuilding. So much of this novel is in the elaborate details of this imagined society. This is society full of secrets, and I want to uncover them!

If you think you’d enjoy tech-noir merged with Chinese-style cultivation fantasy, I recommend this book. You can find it at various stores.

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