Soho Press, 2010, 368 pages
American Iraq War veteran Ellie Cooper is down and out in Beijing when a chance encounter with a Uighura member of a Chinese Muslim minority at the home of her sort-of boyfriend Lao Zhang turns her life upside down. Lao Zhang disappears, and suddenly multiple security organizations are hounding her for information. They say the Uighur is a terrorist. Ellie doesn't know whats going on, but she must decide whom to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors, and operatives claiming to be on her side - in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online role-playing game. As she tries to elude her pursuers, shes haunted by memories of Iraq. Is what she did and saw there at the root of the mess she's in now?
Ellie Cooper is damaged, depressed, and nearly disabled. She joined the Army for the GI Bill. She trained as a medic and liked it. Then she went to Iraq and got fucked up for life.
What happened in Iraq emerges in bits and pieces, though it doesn't take long for the gist of it to be evident to the reader. But now discharged on partial disability, still suffering from physical and mental wounds, Ellie is in China. Her husband, who she married in Iraq, is now a "contractor" working for an American security firm; he left her for a Chinese girl. Seems he needed to get closer to Jesus to deal with his part in what happened in Iraq, and getting closer to Jesus meant getting closer to someone a little more born-again and hotter than Ellie.
Ellie's asshole ex-husband is actually kind of funny, except when he's not. Ellie's mother, who goes to a megachurch back in the States and sends Ellie "angel" email chains and dirty Christian jokes and inspirational messages is a lot funnier... and even though I thought she was just there for comedy relief, she does turn out to be a bit of Chekhov's Gun after all.
Ellie is mostly just hanging out in China, working part-time (illegally) and giving occasional English lessons, when her FWB Lao Zhang, a counterculture artist, suddenly disappears under mysterious circumstances. "Mysterious circumstances" in China means either the authorities got him or they're after him, and soon they are after Ellie too, and she has no idea why.
Rock Paper Tiger is filled with interesting characters, and Ellie can't trust any of them. There's the art dealer Lucy Wu, who may be Lao Zhang's ex-girlfriend and may be a secret agent. There's "Creepy" John, who insists he's a friend but seems to be stalking her and has some scary skills. There's a group of online gamers who seem to be trying to recruit Ellie into something more than a game. There are the American and Chinese security operatives who both tell her that Lao Zhang and his Uigher friend were up to no good. The USA and the PRC may be military and political rivals and economic frenemies, but they see eye-to-eye when it comes to Muslims.
While the setting is what makes this book interesting -- it's not a "touristy" China or a "third-world peasants" China or an "exotic Orient" China but a "SUVs + (Filtered) Internet + Starbucks + Oh by the way they're still a communist dictatorship" China -- it's Ellie who makes it a winner. She's not plucky, she's not particularly tough, she's not an Action Girl. She's a screwed-up war vet who's scared and has absolutely no weapons or superpowers to deal with the scary suits chasing her around the PRC, but she has loyalty to her friends, a resilience that won't let her lie down and give up, and a desire to do the right thing... this time. She's a strong female character in the real sense of the word. She's a survivor.
Being the cold-hearted cynic I am, it takes a lot for me to care about a fictional character nowadays, and darn it, I really cared about poor Ellie and wanted her to have a happy ending. She doesn't exactly get a HEA, but at least she's out of the soup... for now.
All told, Rock Paper Tiger was a very well-executed little gem, and while it's so current and topical that it probably won't age well, it's a great read.
Verdict: This was a much better and more entertaining book than I expected, with a very human, believable, and likeable-despite-her-damage protagonist. I would not mind seeing more of Ellie Cooper, and Lisa Brackman has gone on my authors-to-look-out-for list. She hasn't yet convinced me she's awesomesauce that I want to read everything by, but her first book made a favorable impression and compared to some considerably less impressive debut novels I've read recently, I think this one deserves more buzz.