Lord of Formosa is well-researched, fast-paced, transporting, and enjoyable. Readers should not feel daunted by the book’s 440-page length: The story flies by. Asian settings and character names are also made easy to assimilate by use of maps and by keeping the players to a minimum. Also, this is a transnational story, so it’s easier to keep track of the Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch names than it would be if all the names were Chinese. (Another bit of good news in this regard is that the main character, Zheng Chenggong, ends up with a Romanized name, Koxinga.) It is everything a historical fiction book should be.
One interesting facet of the book is Koxinga’s transition from protagonist to antagonist. It occurs abruptly in the “Physician” chapter, in which Koxinga is treated by a Dutch doctor. Seeing the volatile patient through the eyes of his caregiver effectively subjugates him to the latter’s judgement. For the balance of the novel, the narrative perspective – and the reader’s sympathy – remains with the Dutch, particularly with Formosa’s last governor, Frederic Coyett. A late-game discovery of restraint on Koxinga’s part salvages his appeal somewhat, and he winds up as an honorable antagonist though still an antagonist.
Author Joyce Bergvelt has done a great service in writing such a compelling book about Taiwan, which is such a uniquely fascinating place that it deserves a lot more books like this one.
Julie Wu’s The Third Son is economically written, powerful, and unsentimental. The latter virtue keeps it well clear of the saccharine exoticism that taints many depictions of Asia, particularly of Asian family life. The protagonist, Saburo (a Japanese name often given to third sons), is low in his family’s hierarchy and is treated appallingly by his parents and oldest brother.
The story includes a superlative panorama of Taiwanese history of the mid-twentieth-century and would make an excellent college-course reading-list adoption for this reason; yet only its first part is set in Taiwan, for Saburo makes his bid to escape his dim prospects via higher education in America. The novel’s subject thus changes from Taiwan to the Taiwanese diaspora.
The Third Son is therefore a freedom story, and America is depicted as the promised land of Saburo’s salvation; yet America too is shown warts and all, its promise offering Saburo only a toehold, which he must struggle to maintain and improve. There is little sense in this book of a culture clash between the old world and the new. A fine rebuke to coercive tradition is indeed delivered by an American, as in: “‘Filial piety,’ I [Saburo] said. ‘You Americans obviously don’t know anything about it.’ ‘We do,’ he said, “and we reject it.’” [p. 184] However, the urge to escape to the US is implanted by a cousin back on Taiwan, who calls America “‘a country founded on principles, on personal freedom’” [p. 24] and who later advises Saburo, “‘You have only one life. Fight for it.’” [p. 79] Both Taiwan and America exhibit similar patterns of corruption and institutional hindrance, which Saburo must overcome. (An America that brings out the best in people by constantly challenging them is a strange sort of paradise.) It is in America, however, that Saburo is (nearly) free from the wanton meanness of his kindred, and it is on that freedom that he pins his hopes.
The Third Son is fast-moving and compelling. The reader will not be able to put it down.