A tale of immigration and woe in a future that feels like the past. Much time is spent in this story setting up the proper names of people and places in an alternate-timeline Earth. Vinland, Nine Dragons, Diamond Summit, the Xuantong Emperor. Ultimately, though, the flavors and details are merely working to set up a futuristic mirror of the actual relationship between the United States and China in the 19th century, right down to an Exclusion Decree banning Vinland/American immigration into China. Perhaps we care why and how this situation came to be – maybe it was the Aztec empire? – but it felt like a lot of window dressing on what is mostly a story about one individual’s suffering in an oppressive land far from his home.
I felt a lot of sympathy for the plight of the immigrant. The choice of narrator – an impartial scholar who is annoyed with the uncultured working class and is ashamed of her own ancestry – was a good one. The transformation of her regard for the worker from anonymous academic curiosity to actual, feeling human mirrored my own, to some degree. Can we ever really understand others, until we’ve heard their stories?
So: I think there’s a good story here, but it’s surrounded by a thick layer of setting. The beginning is especially full of names and at each one, I had to take a moment to ponder whether this was going to be important to the rest of the story. The answer is: almost none of them. James McAllister’s tale would work just as well at Sutter’s Mill or the Transcontinental Railroad as it does in Gold Mountain, or the Bridge of Heaven.