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May 16, 2014 / Leslie

Book Review: Decoded by Mai Jia

by Mai Jia

Genre: Literary Thriller
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, Giroux | Random House Audio
Publish Date: March 18, 2014
Formats: Audio: 15½ hours | Print: 320 pages
Rating: 3½ of 5

From the Publisher:

In his gripping debut novel, Mai Jia reveals the mysterious world of Unit 701, a top-secret Chinese intelligence agency whose sole purpose is counterespionage and code breaking.

Rong Jinzhen, an autistic math genius with a past shrouded in myth, is forced to abandon his academic pursuits when he is recruited into Unit 701. As China’s greatest cryptographer, Rong discovers that the mastermind behind the maddeningly difficult Purple Code is his former teacher and best friend, who is now working for China’s enemy—but this is only the first of many betrayals.

My Thoughts:

Decoded is primarily the story of Rong Jinzhen, a mathematical genius who worked for the Chinese government as a code breaker during the cold war. His story is told by an unnamed narrator, probably a reporter, who is investigating and documenting his life. It is presented in flashbacks through interviews, transcripts and journal entries. But before we arrive at Rong Jinzhen story, the novel opens in the 19th century with a look at the history of the Rong family and his ancestors.

The book started out strong. The first portion, about Rong Jinzhen’s forebears, was enchanting and read like a Chinese fable. We moved forward through the years towards Rong Jinzhen birth, and his eventual recruitment into code breaking. I kept wondering when the “thriller” portion of the story was going to kick in. Half way through the novel I realized this was not going to be about cryptography, would not be a thriller by my definition, nor would it be a classic spy novel. There is a mystery as to who created the unbreakable code “purple”, but the story is mainly a psychological character study.

While the book wasn’t what I was expecting when I chose to read it, the writing was good and there were portions I found interesting and enlightening. We get a fascinating look at the inner workings of the Chinese espionage system from an author that spent years working among spies during his time with the People’s Liberation Army intelligence unit. Rong Jinzhen is most likely autistic and is a sympathetic character who is taken advantage of by not only the government but also his family. His downward spiral towards a psychological breakdown was almost painful to follow.

The last portion of the book dragged a bit and became difficult to follow. I’m still not totally clear on what happened and, for me, the novel itself remains a bit of a cipher. Those looking for a thoughtful, deep, literary thriller will probably enjoy this more than I did.

Source: Review copy provided by the publisher through Amazon Vine.
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Leave a Comment
  1. Beth F / May 17 2014 5:05 am

    Humm, I’m not sure this is for me, although I generally like literary thrillers.


  2. sagustocox / May 18 2014 7:02 pm

    I like psychological character studies…too bad this is not about cryptology so much


  3. stacybuckeye / May 22 2014 9:28 pm

    Did the book say he was autistic? Or what was it about the character that made you think he was? There have been so many austistic characters in fiction lately.


    • Leslie / May 23 2014 1:29 am

      The publisher’s summary described him as an autistic mathematical genius, but I don’t recall the book specifically stating that he was autistic. His social skills and inability to relate to other people made me think he might be, but then again, during his childhood he was deprived of normal socialization making his condition worse.


      • stacybuckeye / May 23 2014 9:02 am

        Cool. I’m trying to compile a list so now I can add this one 🙂


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