Let me start right at the top by going straight to the bottom line: this is a helluva good yarn, the sort of read we're all hoping for every time we pick up a book, and all too rarely find.
Rowden Gray comes to San Francisco to accept, he thinks, a curatorship at the Museum of East Asian Arts and Culture, only to find when he gets there that the position has evaporated. Instead, he runs into (literally) a fey young man who leads him on a series of adventures involving an ancient relic, the jade owl, taking them at a rapidly accelerating pace from the city's gay bars to Yosemite, to Hong Kong and finally to mainland China. An odyssey that proves to be, in fact, a quest not unlike the Lord of the Rings. If that kind of adventure is your cup of tea, you are certain to savor this one.
I couldn't begin here to detail all the turns and twists of the plot, and why should I? Once you get started, you'll have all you can do to keep up with them yourself. Suffice to say the bird in question is possessed of magic (and not altogether happy) powers and is cursed, and must be returned to the tomb of the Empress Wu Tze-t'ien if major catastrophe is to be averted. "It brings the comets back to earth," to put it succinctly.
The cast of characters is extensive, too: Rowden, of course, and that handsome and gay youngster, Nick Battle, and his drag queen other half, Simone aka Simon, and a one-eyed Cherokee and Chinatown gangsters and…well, plenty of others, and surprisingly the author manages to keep them all well sorted out, without reducing any of them to caricatures or, worse, mere shadows. Indeed, even the most minor of these many people is well drawn and believable.
Locations are vivid, too—if you've ever been to San Francisco, this will take you there again in a twinkling, and whether you've been or not you'll feel like you, too, have made that arduous journey with The China Hands across The People's Republic.
Okay, yes, there are some complaints, so let's get them out of the way and be done with them. And, frankly, when I said above, "Once you get started," I touched upon one of those problems—the beginning is slow. I had to persevere. You probably will as well. You'll have to take my word for it: it's worth the effort.
What else? There's the length. That's just a personal hang up of mine. Please don't tell me about War and Peace. I read that—when I was much younger. But I'm along in years now and when I pick up a book of 600 pages, it is with serious trepidation. (On the other hand, I have to confess, my interest never flagged. Okay, points to the author. But I'll still bet he could have told his story in, say, 500 pages. Without sacrificing anything.)
More serious problem? There's hardly a page or three that doesn't cry out, scream, for more careful editing. Example (and this one pops up all too often): The word "past" is a time reference. The past tense of "pass" is "passed," not "past." As in, "The present days passed, one upon the other, and became the past." It's a tribute to the author's storytelling skills that all those mistakes and misspelling and, well, simply wrong words, don't break the span of the reader's attention. But they can be serious distracting, for some readers certainly more than others. As a writer, your objective, always, is to keep the reader "in the dream." With every distraction, you risk losing him. He might come back into the story—or he might just close the book and put it aside. Not what you want to happen, not at all.
So, grumble, grumble, grumble. Still, this is a remarkable accomplishment. I finished The Jade Owl with a happy smile and closed it with a sigh of great satisfaction. I recommend the book heartily, with but one reservation: serious grammarians will probably have less hair when they finished than they did at the beginning.
On the other hand, you'll find the journey so thrilling, you won't realize till you're done that you're bald. In which case, you simply follow the example of the lady Simone: invest in a good wig and a lovely sun hat. Hopefully you can always grow new hair. You may never read another adventure tale this good. Honest, possums.