May 22 2012
Dear Ms. Lee—
When I saw you’d released your Tigress series digitally and the first one, originally published in 2005, White Tigress was free at Amazon, I downloaded it immediately. I’m always thrilled to find a historical romance not set in Regency England and I’m fascinated by China and its complex history. I cannot say I was fascinated by this book. I was actually rather repulsed by it and found it to be so bizarre I wondered perhaps, in order to make sense of the story, I needed some sort of cultural Rosetta stone. I questioned if I was too Western or too humdrum for your book for not only did much of the novel baffle me, much of it made me cringe.
The book is set in Shanghai in 1897 and, from the first chapter, the heroine, Lydia Smith behaves inexplicably. She’s arrived in Shanghai two weeks earlier than her fiancé Max (Maxwell Slade) is expecting her—she got better rate on an earlier boat. As she steps down the gangplank, she’s oddly sure everything will be JUST FINE even though she doesn’t speak the language, she’s a beautiful blonde woman traveling alone in Asia in the 19th century, her fiancé has no idea she’s in town, and everyone around her is a total stranger. The only person she knows is the captain of her ship, whose looks she hasn’t liked from the moment she met him. He promises he will take her to the address she has for Max, bundles her onto his rickshaw, and promptly delivers her to a brothel, the Garden of Perfumed Flowers, where she is drugged with opium tea and abandoned to her fate.
Normally this fate would be a life where she was forced to become addicted to opium, used over and over again by men, and then, when her beauty and youth had faded, she’d be thrown out on the streets of Shanghai where she’d ultimately die of opium addiction and/or the damage from of life of prostitution. But, Lydia gets, comparatively, lucky. A very bizarre woman, Shi Po, who is considered “senior in these teachings, a tigress far ahead… on the path to immortality,” (she’s an expert practitioner in the certain Taoist tantric sex practices that can make one, while still living, an Immortal) has found out about the now captive Lydia and believes her primary student, Ru Shan, needs to buy Lydia immediately—while she’s still unsullied—in order to restore him to his place on the path to Immortality. This didn’t make a lick of sense to me. Maybe it will to others. In case it’s just me who is clueless, here’s Shi Po’s reasoning:
“Look again at the girl,” she ordered. “See how much water she has in her? See her breasts, how full and round they are? They will give much sustenance to a man with too much yang.”
Ru Shan grimaced, knowing she referred to him. Indeed that was the source of his problem, according to her: too much male yang. Too little female yin.
….”You will have to buy her.”
….”No!” The very idea revolted him.
“Then you have abandoned the Tao and all the gains you have made these last nine years. You will never become an Immortal. Even your status as a jade dragon will disappear.”
He felt his jaw tighten at the thought, the heat in his belly rising with his temper. Nearly a decade of study, of diligent effort and constant attention, all would disappear? Because he would not sacrifice his family to his goals? Not possible!
“Then you must buy the white girl. You must establish her in an apartment close enough to see her every day. You must partake of her essence every moment that you can.” Shi Po stepped even closer, pressing her point. “And as her water flows into you, your family’s fortunes will recover and your pathway back to the Tao will be revealed.” She lowered her voice into a seductive murmur. “Your mind will find peace, your body rest. You will return to the middle path with new energy, and as her yin mixes with your yang, the spiritual embryo will be born. You will become an Immortal. You can, Ru Shan, if only you will do what is necessary.”
So, Ru Shan, whose life has sucked for the past two years, goes deeply into debt and buys Lydia, a ghost woman, whom he sees a little more than a pet. He installs her in an apartment and plans to use her yin to balance his yang and thus make it back to the Chamber of a Thousand Swinging Lanterns, the antechamber to the Realm of the Immortals, where he’s been three times before his life fell apart. Lydia, still heavily drugged from her doctored tea, has no idea what has happened to her and, when she finally comes out of her opiate induced coma, she finds herself lying on a bed in a small room, completely shaved, and being cared for by a nice young Chinese houseboy named Fu De. When she first awakes, she believes, for no reason I could fathom, somehow her situation is due to Max, her fiancé, whom she demands to see.
Instead, Ru Shan walks through the bedroom door and tells her she is now his slave. (He speaks English.) He explains to her,
“I have extended myself greatly to purchase you. You were most expensive.” His tone indicated disapproval, almost anger. “But it is done now, and you will perform such tasks as I require when I require.”
Lydia has a complete conniption at this idea and spends the next several days rebelling by struggling, refusing to eat, and fouling the sheets of her bed. Neither Fu De nor Ru Shan pay any attention to her actions. After a week of such behavior, Ru Shan comes to her and tells her to get a grip or he will send her back to the brothel where her future—opium, sex with violent strangers, the streets, painful death—will be far worse than what he will ask of her as his slave. He promises she will remain a virgin, that all he wants is her yin—her feminine water. She is confused by what he is asking for. He tells her,
“What I require is your yin. Your water.”
She shook her head, frustration making her surly. “I don’t know what that means.”
“It means that I require your feminine fluids. But not your virginity.”
She blinked, sure she could not have heard him correctly. “You do not intend to ravish me?”
He shuddered—he actually shuddered—at the thought. “I am working to become an Immortal. Ravishment, as you put it, would require a release of my yang power—my manly fluids and energy—into you. That would decrease my ability to attain Immortality.”
She frowned, trying to understand. “But you need my female energy, my—”
“My yin to…”
“To mix with my yang energy and create the power that will take me to the Immortal Realm.”
“You’ll die?” she gasped.
She thought perhaps his expression lightened at her dramatic statement, but his tone remained level. “No. I will become an Immortal. Any man or woman can visit Heaven, but only if they have sufficient spirit to take them there.”
“Spirit? You mean a mixture of your yang and my yin.”
I considered putting the book down and giving up at this point. I was less than a quarter of a way through the novel and the thought of wading through 250 more pages was tiresome. But, wade I did. It wasn’t fun. Lydia stays in the apartment, starts taking off her clothes, and letting Ru Chan draw her yin out of her breasts through regular and, soon enough, arousing caresses. Ru Chan teaches her to stimulate his jade dragon in a way that stirs his yang but doesn’t release his seed. He plays with her cinnabar cave. The two, when not involved in six million acts of non penetrative tantric sex—at least I think it’s tantric sex—argue about whether or not Lydia is an actual person as opposed to a dog or some other sort of lesser being—Ru Chan has been raised to believe Lydia, like all white people, especially ghost women, are
“not completely stupid. But you are still a woman, and nine virtuous Chinese women are not the equal of even one lame boy. You, ghost woman, are worth even less than a Chinese woman.”
They also explore why Ru Chan’s path to Immortality is blocked—it has, disturbingly, to do with his mother’s death. (His mother’s story is told is a series of letters, interspersed in the novel. I found this device jarring and it never explained, to my satisfaction, why Ru Chan’s life was in such shambles.)
Halfway through the novel, Lydia escapes and the relationship between her and Ru Chan changes. I’m not going to explain the rest of the plot—I’ve already given up too much of my life to this book–except to say it was unlikely on so many levels—the only exceptions being that 1) Maxwell, utterly unsurprisingly, turns out to be an ass and 2) Li Po is a devious, bitchy woman.
By the time Lydia and Ru Chan attained their Happily Ever After, I was bewildered about so many things, I again wondered about that Rosetta Stone concept. I never understood why Ru Chan was blocked, why expending his yang was acceptable at some times and not at others, why the two fell in love, why Ru Chan kept a fairly huge secret unrelated to his yang problems from Lydia, or what all the sorta sex they kept having had to do with becoming Immortal. I’m not clear on the difference between a jade dragon and a green dragon. I think the former is a penis and the latter a youthful Taoist male but I wouldn’t swear to it. I have no idea how much of what is in the book is factually accurate—so much of it seemed right out of the empire of crazy made-up crap—but whether the book is historically authentic or not wouldn’t change the fact it’s an awkward, confusing, non-erotic read. I give it a D.
I will end this review with a spoiler. The rather long scene that follows is taken from the end of the book when Lydia and Ru Chan have finally mixed their yin and their yang perfectly. If this scene works for you, ignore my review. I read it and thought, “Really? A perfect paroxysm can toss one into the firmament…. Hmmmm, I must not be doing it right.”
Sincerely and probably limited by my Western cultural background,