Book Tour Review: Three Souls by Janie Chang

Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Title: Three Souls
Author: Janie Chang
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 502
Published: February 25 2014
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 5/5

An absorbing novel of romance and revolution, loyalty and family, sacrifice and undying love

We have three souls, or so I'd been told. But only in death could I confirm this ... So begins the haunting and captivating tale, set in 1935 China, of the ghost of a young woman named Leiyin, who watches her own funeral from above and wonders why she is being denied entry to the afterlife. Beside her are three souls—stern and scholarly yang; impulsive, romantic yin; and wise, shining hun—who will guide her toward understanding. She must, they tell her, make amends.

As Leiyin delves back in time with the three souls to review her life, she sees the spoiled and privileged teenager she once was, a girl who is concerned with her own desires while China is fractured by civil war and social upheaval. At a party, she meets Hanchin, a captivating left-wing poet and translator, and instantly falls in love with him.

When Leiyin defies her father to pursue Hanchin, she learns the harsh truth—that she is powerless over her fate. Her punishment for disobedience leads to exile, an unwanted marriage, a pregnancy, and, ultimately, her death. And when she discovers what she must do to be released from limbo into the afterlife, Leiyin realizes that the time for making amends is shorter than she thought.

Suffused with history and literature, Three Souls is an epic tale of revenge and betrayal, forbidden love, and the price we are willing to pay for freedom.

I think one of the best things about reading, and reading historical fiction in particular, is the pleasure to view foreign, alien places through different viewpoints and cultural perspectives. It's an exercise in trying live a thousand lives across time, vicariously. One of the many reasons I loved Three Souls so much is the vibrancy with which Chang imbues both her characters and her setting of pre-WWII civil-war China. Both come to life under the author's skilled pen, and though this is a debut novel, it's a polished, immersive read from the first page. Thanks to both the aforementioned characters and setting as well as the enveloping atmosphere, plotting, and the lovely writing, this isn't a book I will soon forget.

The narrative frame of a deceased person looking back on her life is familiar, but Chang reworks it in her own way. By using the cut-aways to dead-Leiyin and her three souls commenting on the recently revealed events of past-Leiyin, Three Souls explores its complicated main character's life and character in detail. The change between past and present could be jarring, but with Janie Chang, it's a seamless and fluid transition every time. Through her death and quest for karmic equality, you get to relive Leiyin's whole life through her death, along with her. And the picture that emerges of Leiyin is far from perfect. She is by turns likeable and unlikeable, smart and foolhardy, selfish and selfless. The look back on her life is unflinching, honest and real. It's a fascinating read, partly due to the interesting times and events, but a lot of that interest is down to Leiyin herself. She's a complex woman; one who noticeably grows and changes throughout Three Souls.

Simply put, Three Souls is a beautiful, haunting story about life, death, and life after death -- if I were forced to compare, I'd say it was a much more finessed Lovely Bones meets a much more interesting Ghost Bride. It's a lyrical and descriptive experience. The setting is captivating and fresh -- a civil war China, in which not only do Communists and Nationalists war, but the Japanese encroach as well. With Chang's easy but lyrical prose, 1920's and 30's China is readily depicted, both its heights and its depths. There's often a fine line between pleasing modern readers and creating anachronisms in historical fiction, but this story dances on that line with ease. The protagonist (a young woman of notable status,) Leiyin's yearning for a real education and independence in her life during China's ever-changing socio/political/economic climate feels like a natural and authentic character evolution for that time period while still being relateable to readers.

The feminist themes are subtle, and mixed in with others (like betrayal, family fidelity, politics, etc.), it was possibly the most compelling to me. Leiyin and her young friend Nanmei (and to an extent her sister Sueyin) strive to improve themselves and their lives through whatever means possible. Though society was changing in China, it wasn't fast enough for Leiyin's generation of ambitious women. Modern fads couldn't compete with thousands of years of tradition, and Leiyin's helplessness (both in life and later echoed as a ghost) is understandable and infuriating, even 70+ years after when the book is set.

There is a slight supernatural bent to the story, as evidenced by the fact that the main character is active in the story after becoming deceased before the actual story begins. There's more otherworldliness than that later on in course of the novel, but so far as to not give away anything all I can say is: if you can suspend disbelief enough to buy into the narration of Leiyin and the various manifestations of her three souls, the later twist is just as easy to accept. 

Janie Chang's debut is impressive. Her prose is lovely without being distracting, and I couldn't help but be impressed with how she tied so many threads together into one mindblowing plotblanket that covered the entire novel. The twists were well-timed and unexpected, and kept the final chapters of the novel just as unpredictable as the story that preceded. The ending is satisfying while still remaining frustratingly open-ended for those of use who need finality in all things. Finishing Three Souls was a bittersweet farewell --- it is clearly going to be among my favorite historical fiction novels of 2014, but I was sad to leave without complete resolution.

Here's hoping Janie Chang doesn't wait too long to write her second book.


  1. I want, I want!!! This sounds marvelous and I'm so sad I didn't join the tour. Must get this one stat.

  2. "mindblowing plotblanket" I love this phrase - its so perfectly descriptive!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  3. I actually loved the frame story of the ghosts. It could have been boring and pointless, as frame stories often seem to be, but I actually thought they were a really nice way to allow for reflection and a bit of humor. The three ghosts were like the ancestors in Mulan, and it brought some levity into a dark story. Odd that the bit where she's dead is the lighter part.

    Bahahaha, mindblowing plotblanket. You're just the best.

    I am glad we were right to choose this one. :)


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