The Georgia Straight (Vancouver BC),
November 23, 2006:

    Anyone who has read Adam Lewis Schroeder's short stories knows what a brave and punchy writer he can be. Still boyish enough in his prosaic swagger to avoid machismo but manly enough to be, well, manly, it's almost as if he channels a well-travelled uncle's devastating mix of pull-my-finger fun and fascination.
    With the work of so many younger writers who move from "critically acclaimed" and "promising" short-story collections to first novels, the biggest fear for readers-not to mention publishers and agents-is whether the gifted voice in shorter forms can be translated and sustained in a novel.
    For the most part, Schroeder's debut novel, Empress of Asia, lives up to his earlier praise. Clocking in at just over 400 pages, it follows Harry Winslow as he moves from a naive young man in pre-World War II Vernon, B.C., to an ex-merchant marine survivor of a POW camp who uncovers a mystery involving his recently deceased war bride. But unlike many small-town-boy-coming-of-age stories, Schroeder's tale never enters the realm of predictability. From classic jazz recordings and the eating of bats to war crimes, cross-dressing, and random Canadiana, Schroeder consistently folds disparate subjects into a smooth narrative that is both dark in humour and uncompromising in its depiction of wartime conditions.
    Some authors seem to set their novels all over the world to satisfy publishers' foreign-rights concerns, but Schroeder's numerous locales are an integral part of the story and benefit greatly from his apt descriptions of otherness.
    My only criticism concerns the choice to have Winslow be the narrator, as if he were describing everything to his just-deceased wife. This is strategy intrigued in the beginning, but it jarred my suspension of disbelief whenever the occasional you popped up from the page. Having said that, Empress of Asia is an accomplished and textured tale that is both memorable and rewarding.

--Billeh Nickerson

The Globe & Mail,
October 14, 2006
    What a book!
    Empress of Asia, Adam Lewis Schroeder's first novel after his successful short-story collection, Kingdom of Monkeys, is a surefire winner. It's got historical relevance (it's set during the Japanese invasion of Singapore in the Second World War), dramatic suffering (Japanese internment camps, where the Australians, British and others waited to die or be freed), a love story (Lily Brown and Harry Winslow meet and marry in less than 24 hours) and a terrifically funny but dark and confused narrator, who takes the reader on a whirlwind adventure.
Globe & Mail (cont.)
This is a compelling, heartbreaking and witty book that will stay with you long after you've put it down.
    At the beginning, it is 1995, and Harry Winslow is at the hospital bed of his wife, Lily, when she blurts out a secret that sends Harry on a trip through the past. Most of Empress of Asia is taken up with Harry's musings, his memories, as he thinks back on 1942 and his part in the Second World War.

    But instead of writing it in memoir form, Schroeder sends Harry and the reader right back in time. Harry travels by train from Vernon to Vancouver, B.C., to join the merchant marine. Through many adventures, including several sunken ships, Harry ends up in Singapore just as the Japanese are taking over. In one crazy night, Harry meets Lily Brown and falls head over heels in love. They marry, but are separated within hours. Harry is then taken prisoner and meets Michel Ney, a French man who becomes a key figure in the novel. Michel and Harry narrowly escape the internment camps, but are eventually captured again. At the end of the war, Harry manages to find Lily, and they settle in Vancouver, where they run a car lot until Lily's death.
    The novel then jumps back to 1995, with Harry taking Lily's deathbed advice and travelling to Thailand to look up an old friend and solve the mystery Lily has planted. I can't tell you what happens, but all is revealed in a completely satisfying way. Schroeder is skilled at leaving hints here and there, but never fully giving away the secret. So in the end, the reader is presented with a wonderful, "aha!" moment.     Harry Winslow is a crotchety character when he's old -- and he's crotchety when he's young. His outlook on his life in the war, or in his comfy home in Vancouver, seems about the same. He harbours racist thoughts against the Japanese (with just cause, he thinks, as he muses on his time in the prison camps), and seems to have opinions on just about everything. Harry's character is reminiscent of Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence's Stone Angel -- someone slightly angry at just about everything, but with enough will and strength to carry on, if only just to be able to say, "I told you so."
    Harry is funny and mean and intelligent and dumb and tender. In 1942, he is a strong-willed sailor with a deep love of jazz, then, in the camps, he is light-headed from hunger and has lost his eyesight from beriberi. At the end, he is an old man who wakes without his wife: "I wake up and listen for your breathing, picturing your hair glued to your poor sweaty head, and I can't feel you beside me but plenty of nights when you're bad I end up away on the other side of the bed, so I know to just listen and wait for you to find that breath. But after a couple of seconds I still don't hear you and my heart takes that funny beat. And then I remember everything that's happened. I'm in Bangkok, Thailand."
    Harry's 1995 travels in Thailand, at the end of the book, take on a surreal feel as he stumbles through his past and confronts people he didn't know existed. This is a scattered first-person narrative that is brilliantly written. With dry wit and intense emotional longing, Harry moves the reader around his world, his past, the war and what happened to men and women back then. Memory comes in fragments. Even if it is linear and presented chronologically, memory scatters and moves around with emotion. Schroeder shows us the pain and suffering with the distant eye of an older man looking back, and trying not to remember too clearly. At the end of Empress of Asia, Harry reads a letter that reveals how easily he has been fooled, how easily memories can be shattered, dissected and then rewritten.
    This book is just plain superb. I wish Adam Lewis Schroeder all the success he deserves.

--Michelle Berry

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