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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Shanghai Intrigue

Michael S. Koyama

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To purchase The Shanghai Intrigue

Title: The Shanghai Intrigue
Author: Michael S. Koyama
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016
Length: 384 pages
Availability: The Shanghai Intrigue - US
The Shanghai Intrigue - UK
The Shanghai Intrigue - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B- : ambitious financial thriller, juggling a few too many pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Shanghai Intrigue is a thriller about an attack on the financial markets, written by an economist -- clearly so, for better and worse.
       The story begins with Belinda Lim, an American cryptographer stationed at the US embassy in Beijing, finding herself stymied by some coded messages she's intercepted. She does manage to find the key to the clever code -- but the messages don't seem to be of particular national security concern.
       The story moves to other locales and groups of people, generally in various high places: banks, international corporations, financial consulting firms, the Japanese government, hedge funds. Both the Japanese and a Chinese company, the Sino-African Energy Company (SAEC) -- "one of the largest of the state-owned enterprises" --, are planning on submitting bids for oil fields in Benin, and some unusual activity around this suggests questionable goings on, involving or attracting the attention of many of the various characters. The decoded messages implicate the president of SAEC, Fan Zhipeng, but it's not clear exactly what he is up to. Whatever it is, it involves American hedge fund manager Joshua Fried, a 'quant' working at a German bank, and a Japanese banker; it also involves them getting their hands on a great deal of money -- "eight, if not 10 billion dollars" -- to fund whatever they are up to.
       Red flags do appear: SAEC accountants mysteriously appear to commit suicide, and Mimi, the young assistant to Fan, become suspicious about the messages she has to code and decode for her boss -- and finds that even after she has fled China for the United States a watchful eye is being kept on her to keep her in check. Meanwhile, other interested parties in the financial world and the Japanese government grow increasingly suspicious that something is up -- but they can't figure out what. Even a ten billion dollar pot would make it hard to take a run at a major currency, for example -- but references to George Soros and his infamous 'Black Wednesday' pounding of the British pound suggest to them that something like this is in the works.
       Koyama's economic lesson specifically singles out Japan:

Japan has the highest ratio in the word of government debt to GDP, and more and more people are saying the JGB [Japanese government bonds] can crash without warning. Few economists and pundits are as concerned as they should be, because their analyses are based on logic. They ignore the reality -- that markets really work based on psychology, gut feeling and herd-like reactions.
       Japanese Ministry of Finance man Ken Murai is eventually convinced: "the target of the Fan group was the Japanese government 10-year bond" -- but he is not senior enough to take action on his own, and knows that without proof of how the plan is meant to work he won't be able to convince anyone. Everyone believes the widely held and traded 10-year-bonds couldn't possibly be moved by just a few players. And of course Japanese banks have major holdings of the bonds, and don't want to believe that these aren't quite as safe as they're supposed to be.
       The plan does unfold more or less as the conspirators hoped, if perhaps on a slightly smaller scale; still there's lots of money to be made. Meanwhile, domestically, Japan suddenly faces new problems as interest rates rise and the yen falls; as one character notes: "This is what happens when country piles up a debt that's as huge as Japan's !" (Koyama makes it even tougher on them by shaking things up with an earthquake and tsunami.) Some political turmoil ensues, exacerbated by an ailing prime minister who doesn't want to give up power.
       Koyama tells his story from many different vantage points of those affected and involved -- a range that stretches many of the individual stories very thin. He amusingly does see to it that the wrongdoers get their come-uppances, in any number of ways -- usually involving their greed blinding them and leading to their downfall. Much along the way is rather over the top, and the body-count is surprisingly high by the end, but The Shanghai Intrigue certainly keeps up the action with its constantly shifting stories, situations, and characters.
       The economist in Koyama also rears his head rather obviously, from the finger-wagging at Japan's incredibly high debt to the efforts to explain rather basic concepts such as short selling and margin trades, which is all done a bit awkwardly. The consequences and financial fallout of the scheme are also somewhat underdeveloped -- with too many different examples (of what happens to those that benefitted (or seemed to) directly from the scheme), and then only rather summary suggestion of the consequences for Japan and the Japanese people, Koyama remaining more focused on the individual and some political intrigue.
       The Shanghai Intrigue is lively enough, and there's enough that feels like it's high-stakes -- personally as well as global-financially -- to keep readers lightly engaged, but for the most part it does try way too hard, packing too much story and too many people in. An Epilogue suggesting history will soon enough repeat itself is a nice touch, and the warning, of what can be done in financial markets, and how it can affect people, is worth making. Still, Koyama is no natural writer, and The Shanghai Intrigue rumbles along rather roughly, a thriller that tries to tick too many of the thriller-standards boxes and packs way too much in, diluting what could have been a stronger core-concept story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 March 2017

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The Shanghai Intrigue: Michael S. Koyama: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'Michael S. Koyama' is the pen name of Kozo Yamamura (1934-2017) and his wife Susan Hanley.

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© 2017 the complete review

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