Crime novels are a dime a dozen, but The Shadow Walker by Michael Walters
stands apart for both its exotic setting in modern-day Mongolia and its
intriguing investigator Nergui. Offering a fast-paced and dark setting, Walters,
a management consultant, presents an exciting debut novel.
Throughout the book the author provides detailed descriptions of Mongolia, the resulting portrait is of an unsettled country, formerly occupied by the Soviet government and now feeling the effects of western modernization, all the while maintaining its nomadic history. Here, for example, is British police officer Drew McLeish's first glimpse of Ulan Baatar's city center:
The road widened into a brightly lit avenue, lined with a mix of official-looking buildings, many studded with communist emblems, and newer commercial offices, some with Korean, Japanese or even American business names .... This could be any Eastern European city struggling to come to grips with life after the Soviet Unionthe first shoots of Western capitalism alongside drab weathered concrete, poorly maintained roads and streetlights, shabby squares and inner-city parks. Familiar logos, neon-lit on the summits of office buildings, competed with stylized images of soldiers and starsthe fading murals of communism.
Adding to the exotic flavor of Ulan Baatar are the settlements of the
traditional round nomadic tents, gers, found on the outskirts of the
city, adjacent to the bland apartment complexes originating from the Communist
era. The author also draws attention to the culture clash of Mongolian clothing,
ranging from cheaply made, mass-produced Chinese suits to traditional dels,
heavy robes with ornate belts, worn by both steppe herdsmen as well as older
Nergui, former head of the Serious Crimes Team who rose through the police ranks during Communist oppression, represents as much of a mélange of cultures as does Ulan Baatar. As Drew studies Nergui's physical appearance, he notes his distinctive Mongolian features with dark and almost leathery skin, " as though it had been burnished by the sun and wind of the desert," as well as his high-quality suit contrasting with his garish shirt and tie. Having studied in both London and Boston, Nergui has adopted certain Western characteristics, but Drew recognizes Mongolia's past in him, too, sensing "it would not be difficult to imagine him, centuries before, riding out as a member of Genghis Khan's armies, leading the conquest of the known world." With his questionable former ties to the Communist government, as well as his experience in the West, Nergui, like his country, remains mysterious.
A few times clues emerge a tad bit too conveniently. In a mining site shanty town Nergui and his protégé Doripalam seemingly stumble upon a former revolutionary, who provides plenty of useful information. Later, as Nergui wonders how Doripalam unearths a slew of impressive connections, the latter vaguely replies, "Did a bit of searching on the internetgot some basic information. Also got some data from government systems."
Overall, however, the book successfully combines an unusual locale with plenty of thrills, and readers will eagerly look forward to reading the next two books in the series - Adversary and The Outcast (both published in the UK in 2008, USA publication date unknown).
Gers or Yurts
The Mongolian ger (known more commonly as a yurt in the West) has been used as a home by steppe nomads for more than 2500 years and is still a common home even in urban areas.
Since nomads relocate many times over a year, it is essential that their dwellings be easily assembled and dismantled. A ger can be erected within a few hours on top of a wooden floor. While in the summer this floor remains slightly off of the ground to avoid moisture, in the winter it is constructed directly onto the soil in order to prevent drafts. The structure's support frame is made of wood with lattices forming a circular wall, with a post-and-lintel doorway always pointing toward the south. Willow rods attach to the framework and join at a wooden hoop to form the roof. The cover consists primarily of wool felt swathed with white cotton. Once inside, a basic stove heats a ger during cold weather. A family can load their dismantled ger and belongings rapidly onto a truck or a camel train. Usually one truck or six camels can haul a family's ger and possessions.
Architecturally fascinating, a ger's vast roof span is achievable without the need for the usual internal supports such as posts, trusses, or beams. This is due to the arrangement of the roof's central compression ring and a tension band where the roof attaches to the wall. The strong roofline is able to withstand earthquakes, wind, and snow.
A ger is a Mongolian herder's most valuable possession, and when a couple gets married, its family will either construct or purchase a ger as their new home. Each family has its own ger.
Several websites show fascinating pictures of gers and yurts, including mongolyurt.com, bluepeak.net, and safecom.org.au.
Yurts are gaining in popularity outside of Mongolia. Starting at around USA $5000 for a 16 ft diameter model, yurts can be used in non-traditional ways for park camping, back-country skiing, studios, bed-and-breakfasts, and resorts.
This review is from the November 12, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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