After his grandfather dies, avid scholar and budding forensic investigator Cí Song begrudgingly gives up his studies to help his family. But when another tragedy strikes, he’s forced to run and also deemed a fugitive. Dishonored, he has no choice but to accept work as a lowly gravedigger, a position that allows him to sharpen his corpse-reading skills. Soon, he can deduce whether a person killed himself—or was murdered.
His prowess earns him notoriety, and Cí receives orders to unearth the perpetrator of a horrific series of mutilations and deaths at the Imperial Court. Cí’s gruesome investigation quickly grows complicated thanks to old loyalties and the presence of an alluring, enigmatic woman. But he remains driven by his passion for truth—especially once the killings threaten to take down the Emperor himself.
Inspired by Song Cí, considered to be the founding father of CSI-style forensic science, this harrowing novel set during the thirteenth-century Tsong Dynasty draws readers into a multilayered, ingenious plot as disturbing as it is fascinating.
In 2012, The Corpse Reader received the Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain (Premio Internacional de Novela Histórica Ciudad de Zaragoza).
I received The Corpse Reader as Christmas gift (December, 2013) from my parents after having looked at its cover for months – it’s just so beautiful! I’m not referring to the cover of the English edition, but to that of the Romanian one. Just look at it:
As I’ve admitted before, I’m one of those who judge books by their cover, no matter how hard they try not to do it. Guilty as charged! But seriously speaking, when a cover looks really good, it simply draws me to it, making me curious and eager to read it. I know I’m not the only one, after all human-beings are visual creatures.
Now, to talk about the novel a bit. The Corpse Reader is a promising book at a first glance, and it is, indeed, an interesting read which offers a well-painted image of the Chinese court and culture of that time. I really admire a writer who takes the time to thoroughly research the subject about which he or she is going to write. Antonio Garrido went to conferences, read books, scrolls, etc. in order to get a better idea about how the Chinese society looked like under the Tsong Dynasty.
The novel opens at a slow pace, but about a third into the story, things start to move faster. Personally, I’ve found the first half of the novel to be pretty boring because the author used the same trick over and over again: the hero is confronted with hardships at every turn. While this would be okay for a children’s story, in a novel targeted at a mature audience this literary device gets old pretty fast.
When Ci runs away from home, he is accused of stealing money from a landowner. He finally embarks on a boat to take him to Lin’an, but then he is fooled by a “flower” (term of that period referring to prostitutes) and the boat is stolen from him. He gets to Lin’an, but Kao is after him so he can’t pursue his dream of studying at the Academy. He gets a job at the cemetery, but he is found by Kao and then blackmailed by a co-worker, named Xi. He gets into the Ming Academy, but his dormitory mate is a cocky, rich boy who makes his life a living-hell. And so on and so on… Quite boring after a while, isn’t it?
However, the second part of the novel changes a bit, both in pace and in setting. Ci spends his time at the Imperial Court, where he has been called to solve several murders. Here he learns more about the nobles’ lifestyle, their women, the ceremonies and rituals that the Emperor must perform regularly, and a whole new world – rich, beautiful, enticing – opens before his eyes. This was really pleasant to read, plus the intrigues at the Court further complicate things, making you wonder Who the heck did it?!
The Corpse Reader has been a great read from one point of view, but a tad boring and repetitive from another. The protagonist goes through a lot, yet due to the author’s writing technique, it becomes really difficult to empathize with Ci. Still, I think it is a worth-reading book.