Saturday, 11 April 2020

Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei

Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei
First published in Chinese in 2020. English language translation by Jeremy Tiang published by Head Of Zeus on the 18th February 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the author of the acclaimed novel The Borrowed, a very timely and propulsively plotted tale of cyberbullying and revenge, about a woman on the hunt for the truth about her sister's death.

Chan Ho-Kei's The Borrowed was one of the most acclaimed international crime novels of recent years, a vivid and compelling tale of power, corruption, and the law spanning five decades of the history of Hong Kong. Now he delivers Second Sister, an up-to-the-minute tale of a Darwinian digital city where everyone from tech entrepreneurs to teenagers is struggling for the top.

A schoolgirl – Siu-Man – has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window to the pavement below. Siu-Man is an orphan and the librarian older sister who's been raising her refuses to believe there was no foul play – nothing seemed amiss. She contacts a man known only as N. – a hacker, and an expert in cybersecurity and manipulating human behavior. But can Nga-Yee interest him sufficiently to take her case, and can she afford it if he says yes?

What follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, especially an online gossip platform, where someone has been slandering Siu-Man. The novel is also populated by a man harassing girls on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social dramas; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N.'s neighborhood of Sai Wan. In the end it all comes together to tell us who caused Siu-Man's death and why, and to ask, in a world where online and offline dialogue has increasingly forgotten about the real people on the other end, what the proper punishment is.

Chan Ho-Kei's new Hong Kong-based psychological thriller, Second Sister, incorporates an intricate mix of internet hacking and social engineering to propel its narrative. I was reminded at times of the indie novel Social Engineer by Ian Sutherland, although Second Sister is definitely more ambitious in its scope. I appreciated however that Chan always stays in the realms of the plausible. Of course I can't actually say for sure that everything N accomplishes is as easy or quick as it is made to appear - for those in the know anyway - but I never found myself scoffing in disbelief at some outlandish scenario or against-the-clock race. These aspects are what generally put me off reading thrillers so I was pleased not to encounter such overused tropes here. Instead Chan focuses on the humanity and motivations of his characters. No one, to my mind, is particularly likeable, but everyone has such a strong ring of authenticity to their portrayal that I found myself really caring about how their stories would ultimately interlink and unfold.

The densely populated high rise city of Hong Kong makes a perfect backdrop for this story. Through Nga-Yee's search we see the everyday callousness of many of its residents and their incessant striving for increased wealth and status while, alongside them, an underclass has to work multiple jobs just to stay financially afloat. Hong Kong's contradictions reflect the characters in a way that I felt added great depth to Second Sister and the varied environments helped me to keep individual story threads from tangling up before they were meant to! There's a lot going on throughout Second Sister which made this feel like a fast-paced novel although there isn't actually a lot in the way of traditional thriller action. Indeed many of scenes are simply one or two characters watching another character. However Chan maintains a genuinely tense atmosphere and I was often just as much in the dark as Nga-Yee. I liked seeing how her working relationship with N developed - and that it doesn't devolve into a dreary romantic liason! - although perhaps Nga-Yee's technological ignorance was overstated in the early chapters. There was a little too much moralising at the end for my tastes too. Overall though, I found Second Sister to be a compelling and insightful psychological thriller and I am now keen to get myself a copy of Chan Ho-Kei's acclaimed earlier novel, The Borrowed.

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  1. Replies
    1. It is! I stupidly kept putting off reading it because I was expecting something completely different that I wasn't sure I would like so much.

  2. I tried reading a thriller last month and it wasn't one for me. Mostly because it became too unrealistic and I felt like it was overdramatic and had me scoffing. But it sounds like this one isn't like that at all so I would be more likely to give it a try. It also sounds quite well researched and in the know!

    1. I loved that Second Sister is as much about real people's problems and I didn't feel it went into unrealistic territory purely in order to be exciting.