The Sword Dancer is the fourth of Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty romances, but the first I’ve read. It won’t be the last. I enjoyed this book for its own sake (and I’ll get to that in a minute), but it also embodies what I love about historical romance: it uses the values of the characters, the seriousness with which they take things like honor, duty, and social position, as a rich source of conflict. Honestly, it’s much easier in historical romances than in contemporaries to find reasons to keep hero and heroine apart. These days, fortunately for us, honor and duty and class rarely keep lovers apart, and conflicts/obstacles to the HEA in many contemporaries feel forced. I never understand why so many historical authors seem to throw all this juicy stuff out the window to write contemporary characters in fancy clothes.
Lin doesn’t. Han is a thief-catcher, and Li Feng, the sword dancer of the title, is a thief. Well, maybe? Sort of? (I won’t spoil it). Though his profession puts him “at the border of civility and lawlessness,” he’s a man of the cities, upholding the social order. She belongs to “the lakes and the rivers,” the lawless places outside of settled areas; she consorts with bandits.
This isn’t so much an enemies-to-lovers as an adversaries-to-lovers story. At the beginning, Han is trying to capture Li Feng, and she’s trying to escape (something that happens several times). They respect each other’s abilities from the start, and fairly quickly come to admire each other, even though they remain in opposition. Gradually, circumstances make them a team, working together instead of at odds with each other. This partnership of equals is my very favorite thing in romance. I loved this aspect of the book.
They’re also attracted to each other from the start, and both come to recognize that Han’s “relentless pursuit of her [is] . . . some strange form of courtship.” Lin’s descriptions are often lovely and sensual, as when Han first sees Li Feng, who is performing:
With each thrust of the sword, his pulse rose. With each lunge and leap, his heart beat faster. It was the essence of the sword dance, the balance of contrasting elements. The hardness of the warrior techniques served to highlight the sensuality of the dance. He was enchanted by the suppleness of an exposed wrist. Enthralled by the hint of rounded calves and gently curved thighs beneath the flowing costume.
It would be easy to see Han and Li Feng as balancing elements, and to some extent that’s true, but each also contains both “hard” and “soft.” Han, for instance, is more willing to admit his emotions.
This is really romantic suspense, as Han and Li Feng figure out the motive behind the theft of a chest of jade and defeat the bad guys. The suspense plot is engrossing and well paced, and Lin writes great action scenes–both Li Feng’s flights over rooftops and fight scenes come alive with cinematic vividness.
The world-building is also skillful. I can’t say if the historical background is accurate, but I can say that Lin clearly sketches the elements of Tang Dynasty life and culture that are relevant to her story without dumping information on her reader. She trusts us to figure things out from the context and details she does give. For instance, when Han notes that Li Feng hadn’t learned to conceal her emotions, I understood that he–and people of his class–do learn that. And I also understood something about where the old stereotype of the “inscrutable Oriental” might come from.
This book was a big win: an unusual historical setting; intriguing, well-drawn characters; a convincing conflict; dramatic action and suspense; a quietly emotional love story. It felt different, but also reminded me of the familiar things I love in historical romance. Thanks, Jeannie Lin!