Source: Review copy
Publication: 18 February 2020 from Head of Zeus
Gossip. Rumour. Revenge.
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 behaviour. 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.
I am so glad I said I wanted to be on this blog tour, because Second Sister is a cracking read! The blurb above tells you all you ned to know about the story, but trust me when I tell you that this is one twisty, layered contemporary psychological thriller that deserves its place among the best of books released this year.
Second Sister is a very accessible book, dealing with revenge, cyber-bullying, digital manipulation, hacking and sexual abuse (but is in no way graphic). Second Sister is a book in which almost no-one is quite who they seem to be and this adds an additional layer to an already twisting and surprising thriller.
As I am writing this review The Intercept_ have just published a story that should horrify us all. They allege that the makers of TikTok, the Chinese video-sharing app with hundreds of millions of users around the world, instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform. They say they have documents that show moderators were also told to censor political speech in TikTok livestreams, punishing those who harmed “national honor” or broadcast streams about “state organs such as police” with bans from the platform. It is a story everyone should read and a story that is reflected in what we learn from Second Sister.
Chan Ho-Kei is clearly well versed in technology and his psychological thriller is steeped in current digital abilities and the ethics and morality of the social networks we participate in as he leads the reader a merry dance around Hong Kong and Nga-Yee gives up everything to find out who was behind her sister, Sui-Man’s suicide.
Central to the success of her quest and to the success of the novel is one of the more fascinating detectives I have read in a while. Known only as ‘N’, this detective only takes cases that interest him and his method of payment is as unorthodox as his detecting methods.
Utilising a mixture of skills from hacking to disguises, ‘N’ is a fascinating moral centre in the midst of an unruly, uncontrollable world of digital hackers and privacy corrupters. Here we are taken into the heart of Hong Kong, its culture and business focussed activities and we learn a lot about what it is like to live in one of the world’s most populated cities where real estate is at a premium, rents are sky high and no-one walks down the street without simultaneously staring at their phone.
Chan Ho-Kei’s book is excellent at showing us the just how corrupting social media can be and how easy it is to manipulate; to create fake news and to allow that to stray into malicious gossip and rumour. He neatly segues from that into showing us how some technology companies will use such things to create profit from exploitation of others misery.
This then is the territory that we are in and it could not be more timely. That Chan Ho-Kei has been able to take such stories and create a buzzing, and twisted tale is evidence of his story telling ability.
There’s a great deal going on in Second Sister and the author does not hold back from making social commentary as he goes along. But this is wrapped in a thrilling, contemporary mystery and lots of action that leads the reader on a twisted and fascinating path towards an excellent conclusion.
A timely story of social media, technology and outright greed and corruption. At once social commentary on Hong Kong and its overcrowding; its harassed and overworked citizens and the rapid growth of unsavoury elements of the internet, Second Sister is also fascinating as it touches on many other levels.
Verdict: A really interesting, wholly engrossing psychological thriller that has huge contemporary relevance as well as re-examining ancient themes like punishment and forgiveness. It is fascinating, different and completely compulsive. Unmissable. I’m going back to read the first one now.
Chan Ho-Kei was born and raised in Hong Kong. He has worked as a software engineer, game designer, manga editor, and lecturer. Chan wrote made his debut as a writer in 2008 at the age of thirty-three, with the short story The Case of Jack and the Beanstalk which was shortlisted for the Mystery Writers of Taiwan Award. Chan re-entered the following year and won the award for his short story The Locked Room of Bluebeard.Chan reached the first milestone of his writing career in 2011 with his novel, The Man who Sold the World which won the biggest mystery award in the Chinese speaking world, the Soji Shimada Award. The book has been published in Taiwan, Japan, Italy, Thailand and Korea.
In 2014, Chan’s crime thriller The Borrowed was published in Taiwan. It has sold rights in thirteen countries, and the book will be adapted into a film by acclaimed Chinese art film director Wong Kar-Wai.Second Sister has acquired a six-figure film deal with Linmon Pictures in China. The book will be published in the US in 2020 and rights have been sold to China, Korea and Japan.
Jeremy Tiang’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, Esquire and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. He has written four plays and translated more than ten books from the Chinese. Tiang lives in New York.