The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay (Ballantine Books)

From Seattle to Shanghai was a long journey in 1925, especially for an unaccompanied woman. But Irene Blum travels in a world of art trafficking on a mammoth scale. For her the globe is studded with treasures to be bought and sold, the crown jewels of the deposed Russian tsar, a ring that was the Empress Cixi's prized possession, paintings fit for the collection of a Rockefeller, and most of all, the newly discovered glories of Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

"A woman with a calling, now that is a thing of beauty," is how one of Irene's oldest friends describes her, but Irene's calling has turned to an obsession, a means of revenge. Passed over for a coveted position at the museum she has made into a showcase for Asian art in favor of a man with little experience, Irene is out to find a key to the forgotten history of the Khmer Empire, something that nobody else knows about--a set of copper scrolls hidden in the farthest reaches of Cambodia. With these in her possession, Irene will have a place in any museum she chooses and a secure spot in the only world that matters to her.

Irene's mentor, a man who has fostered her interest in Khmer art, has sent her to Shanghai to enlist the assistance of Simone Merlin, a woman who grew up among the Angkorean temples and knows them as few others do. Now married to a man who is devoted to Communist revolution, Simone is reluctant to return to the world she knew and loved, especially since her husband is both possessive and violent.

So begins a story of adventure and mystery, one that is neither predictable nor ordinary. The plot twists alone would make this an intriguing novel but Kim Fay has skillfully added well-researched history, intertwining the story of a vanished empire with the lives of her characters without making one false or stilted move.

Above all, what makes this book outstanding is its wealth of sensory details. Fay's plot takes readers to Saigon, to Angkor Wat, into the Cambodian jungle, but her descriptions give the heat, the light, the color, the smells of these places. This is a writer who clearly knows and loves Southeast Asia, with a gift that makes the region tangible on the page.

Fay does the same for the people in her novel. Even incidental characters take on a fully-fleshed presence, as much as as the eccentric adventurers who form a fragile and almost incompatible relationship as they are drawn together by different motives to reach the same goal. Paying them the compliment of a slightly ambiguous ending, she allows them life beyond their adventure's end, letting them move on without a tidy and conventional conclusion, ensuring that they won't be easily forgotten.

The Map of Lost Memories introduces a new voice to historical fiction, a talented and skillful writer who is a woman to watch. While waiting for Kim Fay’s next novel, readers can explore her travel writing in Communion: A Culinary Journey through Vietnam, and in the To Asia With Love series that she created and edited for ThingsAsian Press.--Janet Brown