In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, winner of the 2022 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Orphaned young, Ming Tsu, the son of Chinese immigrants, is raised by the notorious leader of a California crime syndicate, who trains him to be his deadly enforcer. But when Ming falls in love with Ada, the daughter of a powerful railroad magnate, and the two elope, he seizes the opportunity to escape to a different life. Soon after, in a violent raid, the tycoon’s henchmen kidnap Ada and conscript Ming into service for the Central Pacific Railroad.
Battered, heartbroken, and yet defiant, Ming partners with a blind clairvoyant known only as the prophet. Together the two set out to rescue his wife and to exact revenge on the men who destroyed Ming, aided by a troupe of magic-show performers, some with supernatural powers, whom they meet on the journey. Ming blazes his way across the West, settling old scores with a single-minded devotion that culminates in an explosive and unexpected finale.”
As someone who doesn’t often reach for the western genre, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu stands as one of those instances where choosing adventure was worth it. I loved it, in short. Tom Lin writes with a voice that emulates the mid-19th century in such a straightforward, yet mystic cadence that it was difficult not to be consumed by the story at the speed of a quick draw. The reading goes quick but purposeful; the chapters are short, but packed with necessary moments of characterization, growth, progress on Ming’s path to rescue his wife and get revenge on the men who ruined his life, and rumination. To add, Lin purposefully uses language from the era he writes in–calling Native Americans “Indians”, “Californie” instead of California—and this choice brings in that Western feel. In the dialogue, Lin gives a same but different dialect to each character that embodies the era as well. Also, to listen to Feodor Chin as he reads Ming Tsu is to be brought to the campfire and hear the complicated, yet intriguing story of a Chinese hitman and his grueling journey.
It may seem negative to invoke the term camp here, but I mean it in the delighted sense of the word. Camp is what adds to the pleasure of reading this novel. There’s a circus show of traveling miracles who join Ming on his expedition, there’s shootouts, a prophet, romance, outlaws, dangerous pathways, horses. Camp in this novel with a person of color at the lead is claiming the escapism POC are often denied when it comes to traditionally white–and sometimes problematic–genres. And it’s just fun. What we would consider overdone in other novels of the same genre work for Ming Tsu because of Lin’s skill when it comes to balancing camp and a good story that carries deeper meanings and conversations in its pack.
To speak of themes, the most apparent theme is revenge. As readers, we’re asked to think about our morality as we root for Ming to see his mission through. We’re made to question whether or not reaching that dark goal is healing or more painful than the reason that fueled its plan. Brewing within that greater theme of revenge are other, more poignant themes that ask us to look inward. Lin asks his readers to think about life and death. He weaves a narrative that lures readers into examining the power of memories and the consequences of remembering and forgetting. Lin wants us to engage and engage deeply with our views on these things as the characters do within the story. Is it our memories of what was and who we were that we cling to during our reflections? What do we do with memories we want to forget but the body remembers? Do we hold fast to our pain or release it to move on? Is revenge really worth it in the end? These questions and more stew in the mind as we travel alongside Ming and witness how morality and mortality wrap around each other in this tale of a man whose memories, good and bad, plague his steps. We want to root for Ming. We want Ming to see his plan through. We want Ming to heal, and we want that healing to be fruitful, even if, in the end, it’s founded on melancholy.
Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a Western seen through new eyes. It has all the trappings of a classic of the genre—revolvers, horses, chases, revenge—with a Chinese American in the center of it all, where John Wayne usually stands. It feels like a small betrayal, by the way, to have to add any modifier to “American.” Ming is as American as it gets. He’s a classic vengeful hero, a nineteenth-century, Wild West John Wick. Ming’s gunslinging, his brutality, and his enduring hope make him a fitting star in what Louis L’Amour would have called a “frontier story.” Although Ming’s Chinese features are an obstacle to full assimilation (and the source of all his tragedy), it’s also a tool—being “other” can help an assassin blend in. But without revealing too much, the ending—fully expected, and shocking nonetheless—also reveals Lin’s commitment to truth, and his refusal to write pure revenge fantasy.
In fact, Lin’s prose throughout the book is spare and straightforward. Despite the elements of magical realism, and the “pulpy” reputation that Westerns sometime carry, Lin’s writing is above all careful. The writing is not free of poetry, only thoughtful about when to use it, and the book contains surprising insights, and moments that prompted true thoughtfulness and introspection. Lin is also very deliberate in giving his supporting characters enough depth, and no more, treating the story more as a fable than as a concrete reality, playing with themes of memory and forgetting, time and fate. Lin intentionally allots more words to events that Ming finds interesting or important, and he only skims along the surface of things Ming touches lightly in his own memory, to great effect on the reader. I suppose it’s fitting that the book is like Ming himself. It gets the job done with extreme competence, without regard for what other voices may call right, or wrong, or dangerously different.
It has been a long time since I’ve put down a book and found myself wishing desperately for a film adaptation. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, by Tom Lin, is one of those rare books which is both so deceptively simple, so easy to read, and yet so cinematic with its presentation and pacing. A Chinese assassin may not be the conventional protagonist for a Western, but make no mistake, Ming Tsu is a main character so gritty and badass that he easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Rooster Cogburn and Eastwood’s The Man With No Name.
True to Western classics, the plot is simple and to the point: a classic tale of revenge. What carries the narrative is the needlepoint precise prose, and the delicious moral ambiguity of its characters. The lean writing style doesn’t waste a single word, proving that great writing shouldn’t overcomplicate a scene, but rather should read as naturally as a person’s own thoughts. The rich mystery of the characters, and the magic that uplifts them, made it a pleasure to follow them into the darker greys of morality.
Without giving too much away, the only place I felt let down was the ending. It’s expected for a story about revenge to have an ending both tragic and well foreshadowed, and yet after the rollercoaster ride that was the bulk of the narrative, when the time inevitably came for the final twit of the knife, I felt I’d already experienced the emotions I was meant to feel nearly 80 pages back—before Ming left Reno.
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a story predominantly about a man’s blood-soaked quest for revenge. In fleeting moments, it is also a story about memory, time, and fatalism, as the same man travels through the desolate west with a blind prophet who can effectively forecast the future, and with a magic circus caravan who hires him for protection, despite not needing it as much as they let on. “A man out of bounds” is how Ming Tsu is described throughout the novel. It is a label given to him by the prophet, repeated together with the many prophecies that help distinguish Tom Lin’s novel and the preemptive edge he gives to his main cast. They will let loose when told to “fight free” knowing they will survive that day. They will resign, even to their deaths, when told further efforts will only be in vain. Both courses of action have a way of reinforcing the novel’s themes and in general, allows for interesting conversations between the characters when the bedrolls are laid out and the passing moments are relaxed. That said, a major drawback to using prophecy in any story is its capacity to undercut suspense, and Lin’s novel just does not quite justify its heavy reliance on it. Ming is a stoic character. His goal is largely singular and a testament to his resolve is that he does not waver. However, because of this and because the prophecies are consistently reliable, Ming comes across as unburdened by the concept of choice. Late in the novel, there’s a particularly high stakes moment where Ming has to make a significant split-second decision to either help someone or not. By this point, Ming already felt pretty invincible so I was excited to see him struggle internally for once. However, in the end, Ming had the prophet make the decision for him and the scene moved on.
In terms of style, Lin emphasizes action in his prose. He thoroughly describes how his characters move–whether it involves something as dynamic as drawing a pistol on horseback or something as mundane as sipping alcohol from a flask. The resulting details, at their strongest, add a charming precision to the quieter aspects of Ming’s character. One scene for example shows Ming measuring between points on a survey map. He thumbs the map’s scale and presses his thumb to the map in increments, counting accurately under his breath while forming a route in his mind. Here, Lin shows Ming’s grasp on the western landscape and what is otherwise a rare moment of enthusiasm for Ming after having been asked, “Isn’t the map wonderfully detailed?” There are also times where Lin shows a vulnerable side to Ming, such as whenever he remedies his gestures to communicate with Hunter, the ventriloquist boy who cannot hear. With these scenes and in many others, Lin thoroughly animates Ming’s concentrated actions. There’s a definite self-will behind what Ming does, so the almost fixed shape his journey takes suggests that an existence “out of bounds” is an ironically rigid one.
Lin’s approach to description was arguably written with cinematics in mind. However, this had a way of detracting from some of his scene work. He dedicates a great deal of prose to the sequences of his characters’ actions, but doesn’t quite get around to skipping the unimportant details–like a camera that jumps around to capture everything, but also cuts between shots at equal intervals. It is hard to tell which details matter. The inner voices of his participating players (that could tell us which details do) tended to drown out with all the forward momentum. Thus, many scene objectives ended up being the same: get through alive and continue again from point A to point B. Also, the troupe (except for one) endeared themselves rather quickly to Ming. The main type of development that occurs between them is that they learn more and more about how like-minded they are. So when there’s a moment of potential discord where one troupe member insists they kick Ming out, the idea barely gets entertained by the majority. All in all, for a vengeful story that delivers on the danger and setting, there is a surprising lack of fear in The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu. Maybe it’s the stoicism. Maybe the prophecies could have been reeled back a bit or have moments where they couldn’t be trusted. Maybe even seeing the men on Ming’s hit list a bit longer would have made a difference. That said, Tom Lin still gives us a very carefully crafted landscape with plenty of thrills and compelling concepts, my favorite thematic quote being: “A man is immortal until the moment of his death. And then he is vulnerable to all things. But until this moment he lives forever, and nothing in all creation can lay him low.”
Ming is a hired gun with a score to settle and a woman to rescue. Accompanied by a blind prophet and a traveling magic show, he makes his way to “Californie” and revenge, leaving a trail of death behind him. Underneath these Western tropes is a meditation on memory. Ming is constantly “wandering in memory” desperately trying to cling to Ada, seeming to lose his grasp of who she was and why he loved her the harder he tries, the blind prophet can see into the future but has no memories of his own, and one of the “miracles” in the magic show can make you forget.
The prophet isn’t troubled by his lack of memory. By focusing on the ground beneath him he can see deep into the earth’s history, and he views this as more valuable than the memories of men, which can lie and change. Ming’s resolve to remember could be seen as an act of defiance, a rebuke to the erasure of Chinese immigrants in the whitewashing of Western fiction, cinema, and history. The prophet’s rebuttal, then, is that “the land remembers only what labor it has born…the land bears witness to their memory,” suggesting that the Chinese immigrants working on the transcontinental railroads will be remembered long after the white men who got rich off their labor.
While these passages are interesting on their own, I feel that they lack cohesiveness. Their frequency gives the reader the sense that they are being hit over the head with the theme, but somehow still find the meaning elusive. Lin often sets one sentence apart to give it importance, but these statements feel like they have no follow through. For example, on page 5: “A body must pass through the world traceless.” Such a thematic sentence at the beginning of the book sets certain expectations, but Ming does not seem concerned with this much at all after the first couple of chapters.
The prophet removes a lot of the tension of the novel, because we always know that Ming is going to be okay. Still I was drawn to his character and Ming’s affection towards him. I was moved at his death and disappointed when he reappeared in a new body right before Ming’s final showdown. Bringing him back removed the one part of the book that felt consequential and muddying some of the lessons the prophet preached.
Still, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a captivating read. A classic western with a magical realism bent, garnering Lin comparisons to Cormac McCarthy for his deft descriptions of violence and cinematic prose, Lin’s storytelling stands on its own. Crimes is an instant addition to the Western fiction canon.
There is a lot to praise about Tom Lin’s debut novel, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu; it is unlike anything else I have read recently. Ming Tsu’s journey to get revenge on those who wronged him and took away his wife offers familiarity and a road map for a traditional Western –yet this novel is explicitly not defined as a Western. Through the rich cast of characters as part of Tsu’s traveling companions, Lin also delivers a story that pulls from fantasy, thriller, and even romance and interweaves these genres effortlessly. Additionally, the landscape functions more than as a tool to move our characters or kill them. By traversing the landscape’s dangers, the characters must surrender themselves to the wills of dessert and come face to face with their mortality and individual value within the greater scope of the world. Lin’s distinct prose, his world-building, and the genre-defying approach create an immersive experience that feels familiar yet otherwordly.
It is most unfortunate that despite all of these critical writing elements working perfectly together, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu was equally frustrating to read. My criticism heavily comes down to the execution of the plot and themes of the story. On the surface, this is a revenge story yet, Ming’s interactions with the secondary characters and nearly always on the brink of death, the story shifts to a meaningful commentary on mortality. Ming is constantly referred to as a “man out of bounds.” His journey of what that means to him contrasts with men not ready for death (those he murders) and those receptive to death (the ringmaster and prophet). Mortality comes up frequently in the book as Ming murders each man that wronged him or discusses how many men he has killed or as he faces someone’s death. Lin takes mortality a step further by having the prophet throughout the trip discover fossils or discuss what the land used to be, putting into perspective how short our time is and that our lives matter very little in the grand scheme of nature.
Death and mortality are provocative themes to craft with, and the novel fails to maximize them. Not only is the ending rushed when Ming takes his final revenge, but it gives no time for reflection. The ending does not indicate character growth, a lesson, or some form of meaning to Ming’s journey. Ming is roughly the same at the end as he was when we meet him despite this harrowing journey. This leaders me to consider, if the deeper perspective of mortality does not have meaning and seemingly neither does Ming’s revenge, what does for this story? Do stories need to be meaningful to matter? Is a story effective if it delivers amazing writing techniques and a solid plot, despite not resolving? For some, these questions may not matter. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu lives up to its expectations of a positive reading experience for them. For me, the story felt a beat behind being something remarkable because the story and themes did not matter, leaving me with more questions than answers.
It’s violent. It’s bloody. It’s an old Western. But The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is definitely not an old story. An orphaned Chinese man, raised by a criminal white man to be an assassin, is hunting down the men responsible for taking away his wife Ada and forcing him into hard labor for ten years. His most consistent travel companion is a blind clairvoyant, who remembers nothing, called the prophet. Together, they take on the old west in a quest for rescue and revenge. It’s an awesome premise. The chapters are short. The pacing is quick. The murder is abundant. It’s told with a kind of repetition that makes the story feel episodic. In fact, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu reads more like an old-school radio drama or comic book than it does like a novel most of the time. It felt as though it could have gone on for seasons, just like a classic old western story, had it wanted to.
However, it’s that repetition that really makes this story drag. It feels as though every couple of pages has to hit the same beats. Kill a man. Maybe kill a horse. Talk with the prophet about if someone will die today. Dream about Ada. Have sex with a woman named Hazel. It’s not a particularly difficult book to parse through—the prose is generally blunt and straightforward, occasionally interjected with some really nice descriptions of the places Ming travels through—but the amount of repetition makes the book feel a lot longer than it is. It’s not a long book. Kill. Kill. Prophet. Ada. Hazel. Repeat. Even when we’re interjected with something new, such as a magic-show troupe filled with individuals blessed with genuine miracles, they simply become another beat that gets added to the story. Kill. Kill. Miracle. Prophet. Ada. Hazel. Sometimes these beats do add more context to the story, sometimes they bring something new to the characters, but that’s maybe half the time. When half of the novel feels like a repeat of the other half, it starts to wear. Even the grotesque action sequences tend to feel overly repetitive.
Maybe part of that is because it rarely felt as though Ming was in any real danger. He was going up against these men with other guns, yes, but he always seems to rather easily overpower them. It’s not until very late in the book that he meets a man who rivals him and legitimately threatens him. Even then, it only lasts a couple of chapters. This episodic feel, while certainly fun in its own right, does make it feel like nothing was ever really going to hurt Ming because he was always going to be okay in time for the next chapter. (I can’t not hear an old-timey voice in my head saying, “How’s our hero going to scrape out of it this week, folks?!”) Which, while may have worked for comics and old TV shows where an issue or episode could be missed and still somebody tuning in could understand the story, doesn’t really work for a novel.
Curated by Brandon Williams