THE LAST DAYS OF HONG KONG by G. D. Penman (BOOK REVIEW)
I’VE JUST WORKED OUT THE TITLE.
That’s so damn clever… The title obviously, not me. Damn I hope you gave yourself a proper pat on the back Gray.
We’re off to a good start, aren’t we. You’ll have to excuse me, please, as I’m suffering from serious book hangover. The kind where… you’ve finished the book, so you stare off into space thinking about it, then your hands reach for it in an attempt to return to reading it. But there’s nothing left to read…
The Last Days of Hong Kong is the third and final instalment of G. D. Penman’s Witch of Empire series (The Year of the Knife and The Wounded Ones) and I screamed just a little bit when Gray sent me an arc. If you’re somehow not aware, I love these books. Well mostly – not to distract from the excellent writing, humour, alternate history storylines and murder mystery – I love Sully, the protagonist.
I’m going to try really hard to review this book without spoilers for it or the series as a whole…
The Last Days of Hong Kong was the perfect end to this trilogy; the second book worked as an escalation of events and themes from the first, and following that I wasn’t really sure where the trilogy could move on to. But rather than tackle an even bigger mystery, and even bigger ‘bad’, instead we’re faced with a whole new set of circumstances. The world has been irrevocably changed, and so too has our protagonist.
Last Days is essentially a heist story – there’s only one wish left. One wish that can remake the world into whatever best fits the highest bidder’s dreams. But Sully did not go through all that previous shit (there was a lot, go read the books) to have it all wiped away by a doll in a sailor suit (seriously, go read them, Eugene is a treat). Sully must acquire the demon and escape Hong Kong (and the very many factions desiring the demon for themselves) in one piece.
So in that regard, it’s a straight-forward enough plot. But there is so much at stake now, and Sully is not the same witch she was (despite what the cover is claiming). What I always loved about Sully was her no-nonsense kickassery with flashes of vulnerability. What we have on our hands now is a Sully who has had plenty of time to reassess a couple of things; she’s emerged from the fire with an outlook that allows for a great deal more vulnerability, and flashes of no-nonsense kickass. Her evolution has been the most incredible journey, and straight away on the very first page Penman had me breaking my heart for her:
She knew that who she had been was down there somewhere, but each and every time, she had to make the decision whether what she might find out was worth the dive and the pain. Very little was.
Ok so, somewhat spoilery for book two, but Sully had lost her memory, and we return to find her having pieced a good portion of it back together. Her approach to rediscovering herself was at times poignant, as above, at times so thought-provoking:
Catholic school was another cluster of memories that Sully hadn’t put too much effort into retrieving. What was the point of rebuilding yourself if you used the same crumbling bricks?
Losing my memory is a genuine fear of mine, aided, not in a small degree, by just how distressingly forgetful I am on a day-to-day basis. Sully’s fastidious rebuilding of herself, relearning of who she was and how that should shape who she now is, was a very large and important aspect of the story as a whole and one that resonated hard with me. This will be a difficult subject for plenty of people out there, and Sully’s handling of it, well, Penman’s, was just beautiful.
Something I really loved about Last Days was that we were treated to flashbacks of other moments in Sully’s life, mostly revolved around Marie. In my review for The Wounded Ones, I discussed how mother-daughter relationships were represented, and there was a great deal of focus on Sully’s mother. But in Last Days, the focus is very much on the more important woman in Sully’s life. Despite the demons, curses, vampires, warring empires, magical planes of existence, bureaucrats, were-bears, etc, the driving force of this book was a love story. It sounds like it would be too much, that something here would have to give; but this is a testament to Penman’s staggering storytelling abilities that, actually, what we have here is an exciting, page-burning action-packed night in Hong Kong and an utterly heart-breaking love story.
Show me what you really are and I’ll leave you anyway.
– sob –
I should stress, this story was also fun by the way, soul-searching themes of accepting one’s true nature aside. Sully’s snark still jumps from the page, and Penman still knocks out plenty of brilliant lines that had me properly sniggering:
Up close, the guy had a pencil mustache and enough oil in his hair that Sully was surprised the British hadn’t invaded it.
All in all, this was the story I’d been waiting for; it met all my expectations then went above and beyond them, not just for an entertaining read, but for Sully herself, too. Penman drops a whole load of new trouble in your lap; it’s a neon-lit grimy noir world with a sucker-punch of soul. Go, pick up these books, introduce yourself to Iona ‘Sully’ Sullivan; you won’t be disappointed.
The Last Days of Hong Kong comes out 5th October from Meerkat Press.
Not currently available for pre-order so mark your calendars instead!