In the last couple of years, the Western genre has been enriched by the appearance of protagonists beyond the John Wayne-type figure, such as the all-female band of desperados in Anna North’s Outlawed and the Chinese American sisters in C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold. A welcome addition to the evolving genre is The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, a classically structured Western that’s tinged with the supernatural, starring a Chinese American assassin who roams as far as Utah to kill the men who broke up his marriage to a white woman.
On his journey of vengeance, Ming Tsu is accompanied by an ageless Chinese prophet who calls Ming “a man out of bounds”—someone who has managed to cheat death many times. Together they join a motley circus crew that tours from town to town along the transcontinental railroad line. The troupe includes a shape-shifting Pacific Islander, a ventriloquist who cannot hear or speak, two Mexican and Navajo stagehands, a mysterious white ringmaster and a white woman who falls in love with Ming.
Ming is a unique figure. He’s a murderer with a strange personal code who gains the loyalty of the circus folk but also earns the full ugliness of his enemies. As the son of Chinese immigrants, he helped to build the railroad, a familiar role for Chinese characters in early Westerns, but he’s also a score-settling outlaw worthy of True Grit.
The story’s supernatural elements never get in the way of the action, as first-time novelist Tom Lin displays remarkable skill in maneuvering his plot and characters so that readers continue to believe the tale even when it seems impossible, as when a cougar befriends Ming and shares its water and food with the man. This is a major work that enlarges our view of the Wild West and marks Lin as a writer to watch.