“The Fan Tan Players” tells the story of Nadia Shashkova, a Russian refugee, and Iain Sutherland, a Scottish spy working for the British government. In part one of the book they meet in Macau or Macao, as it was called by the Portuguese, in the spring of 1928. Nadia is 28 and therefore, “on the shelf.” She helps her uncle in his tobacconist shop and looks after her mother who is still in mourning for her husband who was savagely beaten by peasants in Russia and then disappeared. Officially a clerical worker in the British Consulate, Iain is an ex-soldier who is investigating the source of local opium trading which from the very first page is shown clearly to be dangerous and terrifying.
Iain courts Nadia because he believes the opium smuggling is connected to packages of tobacco for her uncle, but soon he is smitten by her, although she remains detached. The story of their relationship is deeply entangled in the history of the time. The book spans 1928 to 1945 in four parts as Iain travels from Macao to Russia, back to Scotland and finally to Hong Kong at a critical time in world history.
Fan Tan is a gambling game which Nadia enjoys playing when she is out with Iain and she later proves herself still to be a brave gambler, even with her own life, for the sake of those she loves. Both she and Iain suffer many hardships and tragedies but both possess indomitable spirit.
I found this novel mesmerising. The characters are warm, stubborn and real and the history, only some of which I knew, was fascinating. The setting in 1920s Macao is vividly described and atmospheric. I shall certainly seek out Julian Lees again.