Book review: Second Sister

Second Sister

Second Sister
by Chan Ho-Kei
was first published in 2017
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
Grove Atlantic/Black Cat
Thriller/Chinese Literature
512 pages


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Chan Ho-Kei is a renowned Chinese author of thrillers. He’s famous for The Borrowed, which I haven’t read yet. So I seized the opportunity to read his upcoming Second Sister. It will certainly not be the last book by him I read. Read further to know why.

Nga-Yee’s parents have died. So she’s in charge of her sister Siu-Man, 15, eight years younger than her. She works hard at a public library in Hong-Kong to make ends meet. Their family has experienced many years of misfortune.
One day, Nga-Yee comes back from work, and finds “her little sister was sprawled on the cold concrete”, at the foot of their apartment building.
What happened? Was Siu-Man murdered? Did she commit suicide? If so, why would she have done such a thing?

Nga-Yee decides to hire a private detective to figure out what happened and why. When he realizes the case involves social media, he understands it is way above his head, so he gives the ID of a very weird guy, the White Hat hacker N., to help Nga-Yee.
The book then focuses on the investigation. The narrative is interspersed with excerpts from forums and social media postings between two unidentified persons, that make the plot advance.

In parallel though, we meet the small staff of a high-tech company, preparing for a possible major deal coming their way.

Obviously, when you have parallel plots, you always wonder if, when, and how they will intersect. I won’t reveal any clue about these three questions, I just know you will be amazed!

I was fascinated by all the geeky details about hacking, cybersecurity, the dark web, forums and underground platforms, used by teenagers and others. Some passages may be too technical for some readers, but I thought it was super well done. As Nga-Yee is a total novice in this field, or “a moron” as N. would say, N. has to explain many things. Plus the author, who has worked as a software engineer and a game designer, knows what he’s writing about.

Internet is a tool. It can’t make people or things good or evil, just like a knife can’t commit murder. It’s the person holding the knife—or maybe the evil thought animating the person with the knife.

N. is the total geek and really an intriguing character, and he will get more so as you read along. He often appears to be quite mean actually, especially towards Nga-Yee. But he is so much more than that!
It was fun at one point, when I realized something two pages before it was revealed. It was like an aloud OMG moment!
And indeed, you are going to experience many such moments, as the book keeps morphing and twisting. It’s over 500 pages, but it reads super fast, because of the amazing suspense, and the many surprises in the plots.

The flashbacks on the hard life of Nga-Yee’s parents and grandparents provide historical details on the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the SARS outbreak in 2003.
We also learn more about life and society in Hong-Kong, mass protests, Hong-Kong subsidized government housing, seedy places, the underbelly of the city, hackers, and at the other end of the spectrum on fancy high-tech companies, and rich places.
More major themes are teen cyber-bullying, guilt, and revenge. And as the two quotations I include in this review show, it’s ultimately a reflection on the tool called Internet, and what we do with it.

Human beings naturally love expressing their opinions more than they want to understand other people. We always talk too much and listen too little, which is why the world is so noisy. Only when we understand this will we finally see progress in the world. That’s when humanity will be ready to use the internet as a tool.

I noticed a cool inclusion between the very first paragraph of the book:

When Nga-Yee left her flat at eight that morning, she had no idea her whole life would change that day.

and the very last:

When she left her old home that morning, she’d already been certain this would be the day her life changed completely.

This is a very smart Chinese thriller, not unlike the smartness displayed by the Japanese Keigo Higashino, actually mentioned in the book. My favorite mystery of the year so far. 

VERDICT: If you are looking for something different, geeky, suspenseful, and smart, don’t wait, read Second Sister now.

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Any other good Chinese thriller?

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this ebook free of charge from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.


9 thoughts on “Book review: Second Sister

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