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Jian by Eric Van Lustbader (Villard: $17.95; 443 pp.)

February 02, 1986|Ib Melchior | Melchior, formerly with the OSS and the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps, is author of "V-3," published by Dodd, Mead last fall. and

With "Jian," his fourth novel set in Asia, Eric Van Lustbader firmly establishes himself as an author of authentic and engrossing Oriental intrigue second to none.

"Jian" is a Mandarin word with several meanings, among them "supreme creator" and "grand champion of wei qi ," an intricate board game of strategy also known as go , which is played with smooth stones. Thus the novel is structured as a gigantic international game of wei qi , with the players being Chinese Communists, the Soviet KGB, and a special U.S. intelligence agency known as "The Quarry." The author moves with equal ease in all three disciplines including the lethal, interdepartmental power struggles within them. The prize of this deadly game is the financial control of the Crown colony of Hong Kong, gateway to China.

When you visit Hong Kong today, you become aware of deep anxieties about its uncertain future. This grim mood is mirrored ambly in "Jian," a sprawling story of intrigue, gore and steamy sexual encounters, as we follow a maverick Quarry agent, Jake Maroc, caught up in the whirlwind schemings of a game set in motion decades earlier by a great "jian." That does not become clear until the last stone has been placed on the literary wei qi board.

"Jian" is a treasure trove of Asian lore, and Van Lustbader's style captures the Oriental flavor of the novel effectively. An old man is "furling his rice umbrella as if it were a ship's sail," gamblers are kneeling around a low table "like penitents before the altar," and the cameras of a "straggle" of tourists are "clicking away like a field of crickets." Only occasionally does a tired cliche intrude: "He drank her in."

Perhaps the author could have curtailed his use of foreign words. Although most of them are explained in the text, become obvious, or are listed in the appendixed glossary, they do tend to distract you when it is not immediately clear what you are reading. For instance, there are 25 foreign words on the first five pages. It is a minor criticism, and it is meant to be, for Van Lustbader's story is lightning-quick; he paints word pictures that inexorably draw you into his exotic and exciting settings and situations. When you finally put the book down, you feel you've been there.

For the reader who looks for easy reading, "Jian" may not be the best choice. But for those who enjoy a challenging, convoluted plot and vivid descriptive writing, "Jian" will prove eminently satisfying.

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