The Girl from Junchow is a rare novel: a second book that is actually better than the first. I enjoyed the first book, The Russian Concubine, but considered Furnivall's next novel a bit of a train wreck, so I came to this one with mixed feelings... and, as it turns out, was pleasantly surprised.
This book continues the adventures of Lydia, a teenage Russian refugee brought up in 1920's China, as she returns to Russia in search of her imprisoned father, accompanied by her half-brother Alexei and friend Liev Popkov. Her Chinese lover Chang An Lo puts in an appearance as well, and he's actually much improved since The Russian Concubine; he has a life now and struck me as a much more believable character than he did the first time around. We're also introduced to a new cast of secondary characters: a pleasure, since one of the things Furnivall does very well is develop even the minor characters.
The story, meanwhile, is an entertaining one, complete with crisp dialogue and a well-drawn historical setting. And Furnivall's writing style has clearly matured since The Russian Concubine as well. The biggest sticking point for me is that the plot lacks realism, with characters frequently getting out of ridiculously dangerous and difficult situations with mind-boggling ease. Nothing nature, injuries or the Soviet State throws at these characters manages to stop them for long, which dilutes the suspense and makes relating to the characters' predicaments more difficult. These quick-and-easy solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems are nothing you wouldn't see in many a fantasy novel or action-packed thriller, but they seem out of place here, when combined with much loving attention to character development and setting, not to mention the relatively slow pacing, with whole chapters devoted to character interaction.
For those who haven't read The Russian Concubine, this book should still be easy to understand; the setting has shifted from China to Russia anyway, and many old characters have fallen by the wayside. And for those who read and enjoyed the first book, I highly recommend this sequel.