June’s TBR challenge theme is “More than One” (multiple books by this author in your TBR). I was spoilt for choice since I have a bad habit of being caught up on buying an author even when I’m not caught up on reading her.
Given my struggles with last month’s challenge book, I wanted something I’d love, so I narrowed it to two authors: Jeannie Lin and Molly O’Keefe. Here is where I admit, shame-faced, that while I had read and loved one book by each, and then bought a lot more books by each, I had still only read the one. They are both way overdue to be pulled from the TBR. My choice of Lin’s Tang-dynasty historical The Lotus Palace was sparked by reading her blog post on not seeking reviews, because she’s an author I think deserves a much wider audience. (Don’t worry, Molly O’Keefe, I plan to get to one of yours soon).
So how did it go? I loved it.
Here’s the blurb (from the author’s website):
It is a time of celebration in the Pingkang Li, where imperial scholars and bureaucrats mingle with beautiful courtesans. At the center is the Lotus Palace, home of the most exquisite courtesans in China…
Maidservant Yue-ying is not one of those beauties. Street-smart and practical, she’s content to live in the shadow of her infamous mistress-until she meets the aristocratic playboy Bai Huang.
Bai Huang lives in a privileged world Yue-ying can barely imagine, yet alone share, but as they are thrown together in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery, they both start to dream of a different life. Yet Bai Huang’s position means that all she could ever be to him is his concubine-will she sacrifice her pride to follow her heart?
What it doesn’t say, but I realized a chapter or so in, is that this is a riff on The Scarlet Pimpernel, featuring a hero who pretends to be a dim-witted pleasure-seeker as a cover for his information gathering. I’ve loved The Scarlet Pimpernel since my high school French teacher, definitely a romantic, showed us the Anthony Andrews-Jane Seymour version in class. I was won over from the start.
The Lotus Palace is much more than a play on a classic story; in fact, aside from the basics of the hero’s character, it has very little in common with The Scarlet Pimpernel. I loved how Lin built on that foundation themes of hidden truths, of appearance vs. reality, and of learning to see clearly/see from different perspectives. The Pingkang li is full of people keeping secrets and playing roles:
No matter how much Huang thought he knew the courtesans of the North Hamlet, no matter what their public personas might reveal, they kept a part of themselves guarded away. That was why he needed Yue-ying’s insight.
In this setting, a murder mystery fits neatly into the love story, the two plots playing off each other.
Yue-ying and Bai Huang both capitalize on their ability to hide in plain sight: people underestimate and look past them, and so they can observe others carefully. Each sees the other when no one else does, and they slowly become open and vulnerable enough to reveal themselves fully to each other.
Lowering your defenses is painful, and some of the scenes I found most moving were those where the lovers struggle to do so. The first time Yue-ying and Huang sleep together, she tries to forget her past in a brothel. But despite his gentleness and attentiveness, despite the fact that for the first time she is freely choosing sex, “Though her blood warmed, her mind remained cold. The two halves of her couldn’t find one another.” This scene almost made me cry. I love a good bad sex scene: I love it when romance attends to the pain, messiness, and failure that is sometimes part of sexual intimacy and the vulnerability it can bring. That’s part of my own experience, and I seldom find it explored in fiction. The sex gets better, of course–and it means more when it does because of the difficulty in getting there.
The final thing I want to say is how much I love the way Lin uses her historical setting. She’s very good at building her world without dumping a lot of exposition into her novels; her prose also conveys the fact that these characters speak a different language without dropping in Chinese phrases (unlike those Greek endearments that pepper a Harlequin Presents). It’s very deftly done. And she uses the class divisions and hierarchies of this society to create a very believable conflict keeping her lovers apart, rather than casting them aside in favor of something more artificial (I’m not good enough! Mommy didn’t love me!). I really didn’t see how she was going to resolve the conflict, though I knew she would. The resolution is a bit fairytale, but it too draws on the social and cultural expectations Lin establishes, so I bought it.
None of the characters deny or ignore the privilege accruing to Bai Huang as an aristocrat and a man. Yue-ying challenges him after he steals a kiss from her:
“This sort of thing is a game, as if you had a right to everything in the world for your amusement. . . . You have the privilege of turning everything into a jest when I’ve never had the privilege to even refuse such an act.”
And yet, the privileged also are constrained; Bai Huang is bound by duty to his family and can’t do or have whatever he wants. His sister, Wei-wei, envies the freedom Yue-ying has to move about the city, though that freedom comes at the expense of Yue-ying’s low status. Everyone in the story is free in some ways, powerful in some ways, trapped in other ways. They’re all struggling to find agency and a life they can choose within the constraints their society places on them.
For the understated but deeply emotional love story, the great world-building, the page-turning mystery, and the strong secondary characters, The Lotus Palace is a book to love.
Wonderful review. I love stories that rework other stories (I’m currently reading Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird). I shall add The Lotus Palace to my pile! 🙂
I do too, and the romance genre is full of them (though fairy tales, especially Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, are a more common motif). Another Pimpernel-inflected romance I liked was Sherry Thomas’ HIS AT NIGHT.
Ooh, thanks. I’ll look that one up too!
His At Night is my favourite Sherry Thomas! I, too, love the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. So romantic! I think The Lotus Palace is on my TBR – I really must move it up the pile.
You inspired me to grab this from the library: it sounds as if it will be a fabulous read!
I hope you enjoy it!
What a lovely review. Every word of it.
I’m so glad you liked this so much. I *think* I prefer Jade Temptress to Lotus Palace, but that’s like comparing preferences over fine wines or delicious meals: why choose? Right now Lin is one of the best writers, hands down, in the genre. She does amazingly good world building in short word counts, all the while providing us with memorable love stories. The more I read in romance, the more I realize how very good she is.
I cannot wait for Jade Temptress now (well, I can wait a little while). I agree about Lin’s excellence. And although the setting seems so different on the face of it, there are many elements in her books that would be familiar to lovers of traditional Regencies. I like that she’s doing something new but also working firmly in the traditions of the genre. Sometimes when we talk about her we focus on the “different” setting, but it’s also just a great romantic story.
I loved this book too and its reminder that everyone operates under constraints, even the privileged. That she talks about privilege at all is refreshing and unlike my general experience with romance.
Like Sunita, it’s hard for me to choose between this and its sequel, The Jade Temptress. The Jade Temptress works better as a mystery, but I liked this one better due to the premise, awkward sex, the class divide, and the characters. I actually found the resolution realistic. While the scholarly exams inherently favor those from upper class families, they do occasionally reward those from the lower classes. Similarly, I could see class barriers to marriage being lowered for pragmatic reasons such as the ones Bai Huang’s family (mostly his mother, IIRC) advances here.
Lin is hands down my favorite writer in the genre and one of my favorite of writers currently publishing in any genre.
Reading this confirmed Lin is one of my top romance authors, too. In both books I’ve read (the other was Sword Dancer) she uses social constraints so effectively when developing her romance and conflicts, and I always wonder why more historical authors don’t do this. It’s still a romantic and sexy book without giving these people modern attitudes.
I stayed up way too late finishing this because I had to know how all the plot lines resolved: would Huang pass his exams? would they be able to marry? would they escape the bad guys, and who were the bad guys anyway? I really couldn’t predict what she was going to do. One of the most page-turning books I’ve read this year.
I loved this book to bits. I’ve read six or of Jeannie Lin’s works and this one is my favorite. The scene in which Yue-Ying reveals her shared past with Mingyu to Bai Huang was just so poignant. And that love scene! What a terrific book.
Yes, and when he talks to her about his failures. Lin writes those painful, vulnerable scenes so well without over-egging the angst pudding. That makes more emotional reading for me than when the author goes over the top.
I also really appreciate the way she recognizes the constraints placed on women at the time but still gives them some believable power and agency. Sometimes within romanceland there seems to be this attitude that in “the past” women had NO agency or power, just because it looked different from today (I’m not claiming they didn’t have more social and legal limitations, of course). But that erases the power and agency real women had, which hardly seems feminist to me. I didn’t feel Lin fell into that trap, and as I said, I liked the overt exploration of these questions. (I’d love it if Wei-wei, Bai Huang’s sister, got a book. The best scholar in the family, but all she can do is support her brothers in their studies.)
I couldn’t agree more that there are times when understatement can be far more powerful than pouring on the drama. I loved that in this book and also in The Jade Temptress.
It takes real skill and nuance to portray both the agency women had in the past and the limitations that were placed on them. I think that’s why so many books stumble when it comes to that. And it can be hard balance to strike, too. Even Jeannie Lin doesn’t always pull it off for me (I wanted Soling to have more agency in Gunpowder Alchemy).
A lot of readers have asked for a book about Wei-wei, so hopefully we’ll get one!
Admittedly I skimmed your review because this is one of the few by Lin I’ve got in the TBR that I’ve been neglecting (along with The Jade Temptress, her debut Butterfly Swords, and her most recent HH title – I’ve read all the others, I think?). Anyway, I like what you said about her world-building because that’s always what really seems to stand out for me with her books. I know nothing about Tang Dynasty China. Less than nothing, if that’s possible. But Lin never info-dumps, she never goes off on dry history tangents, she keeps her story focused on the romantic plot at hand and builds up Tang Dynasty China all around that.
I have a theory that Regency England remains perennially popular for romance readers because it’s familiar. For the most part, it’s a world they’re very comfortable with. And it’s why I think sometimes these more “exotic” settings take a while to gain some traction. They see “Tang Dynasty China” and immediately think “I know nothing about Tang Dynasty China and will be ‘lost’ throughout the whole book and it will be boring and dull and yada yada yada.”
Or I could be totally off-base here. Just my general impression as someone who likes to air her romance reading outside of 19th century England on a somewhat regular basis.
You’ve nailed it. For me, that was my exact reaction when I first heard about Butterfly Swords. I know absolutely nothing about Chinese history, much less the Tang Dynasty. I didn’t think I would be able to find comfortable footing in that setting to be able to enjoy the setting and the story set in it. But then I started hearing rave reviews and thought I had to give it a try. And thank goodness I did. It was MARVELOUS!
Haven’t read Lotus Palace yet, but Liz’s review makes me want to do so.
I like your review, it makes me want to read something written by Jeannie Lin, as I haven’t read anything by her yet.