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REVIEW: My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas,

Given the current (rocky) state of my relationship with historical romance, I approached your latest book with a certain amount of trepidation. When I’m in a slump, I’m always afraid that my mood will extend to the next book and jinx it somehow (while of course simultaneously hoping the next book will *break* the slump). I did have some hope in this case, though. If my issue with historical romance is at least in part that it all feels so same-old, same-old, I thought I was in safe hands here; a Sherry Thomas book is never boring.

The story opens with an action-packed prologue set on a ship crossing a storm-tossed ocean: Catherine Blade is waiting out the gale in her cabin when she hears an unusual noise, goes to investigate and finds an acquaintance, Mrs. Reynolds, bloodied and beaten. Mrs. Reynolds implores Catherine to go after her sister, Mrs. Chase, who has fled their attacker to the deck.

Catherine, who is more adept at dealing with mysterious assassins than your average Victorian heroine, vanquishes the villain on the deck and saves Mrs. Chase. In the course of a cinematic battle involving flying doors and improbably high vertical leaps, Catherine recognizes the attacker as Lin, an enemy whom she holds responsible for the death of her daughter. Catherine had believed Lin dead – beheaded – years before. Lin disappears over the side of the ship, presumably swallowed by the sea. (Am I spoiling anything if I add a skeptical “yeah, right?” Probably not.)

The next scene is marginally less dramatic, at least on the surface. Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase are being met in London by Mrs. Chase’s daughter, her daughter’s fiance and the fiance’s brother. Catherine is with them when she recognizes the fiance, Captain Leighton Atwood, as someone she’d known years before – a man she believed dead because she thought she’d killed him. (The first chapters of the book really give the impression that Catherine is really bad at knowing when people are dead, but it’s just a coincidence, I guess, that she happens to encounter two such people in quick succession.)

The story then switches to flashbacks. When Catherine and Leighton first meet, she is known as Ying-ying, though she does not actually give him that name or any other. Both are pretending to be someone else when they meet in a desert oasis in Chinese Turkestan. He sees through her male disguise and finds himself intrigued and attracted; they travel together for a short time, in spite of her wariness of him. They part, then meet again, eventually giving into the devastating attraction between them. But the differences between them and the secrets they keep from each other lead to distrust, a resolve on Leighton’s side that they must part, and finally Catherine’s admittedly somewhat rash decision to try to kill her lover.

Catherine began life in China as the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman who died before she was born. She is raised by her amah after her mother dies, and eventually by Da-ren, her stepfather and a high-ranking member of the Chinese royal family. She is in England (in the present storyline) on behalf of Da-ren hunting for two jade tablets, part of a triptych that are believed to contain clues to a hidden treasure (I wasn’t hugely fond of this rather silly aspect of the story). Catherine has been trained in certain arts that make her well-suited to the search. Further, the last possessor of one of the tablets was her beloved, murdered English tutor. She hopes to connect somehow with her memories of him while in England, as well as fulfilling her stepfather’s wish. She never expects to meet a ghost (never mind two) from her past.

As with most (all?) of the Sherry Thomas books that I’ve read, My Beautiful Enemy switches back and forth between two time periods, in this case 1883 and 1891. I recall being surprised to learn that many romance readers don’t like this device (of course, I was also surprised, once upon a time, to discover that a lot of romance readers HATED first-person narratives; I rather like them, at least if I like the narrator). I have to say, I’m not sure I quite get what the objection to flashbacks is. I think they function well in intertwining the meatiest parts of a story with the more prosaic parts, so that there aren’t many lulls in the dramatic tension. I don’t know; flashbacks usually work for me, especially the way this author does them.

The prologue of My Beautiful Enemy put me off slightly, for a couple of reasons. For one, I felt dumped into a chaotic scene with very little context (which may well have been intentional on the author’s part): we are introduced to a heroine who is unusual, to say the least, and shortly she encounters a mortal enemy whom she’d thought dead and we find that she’d lost a child in a horrendous way. It was a lot of pretty heavy information to have dumped on me as a reader before I’d gotten my bearings (and before I felt any connection to the characters). Also, I really didn’t love the martial arts fight Catherine engages in with Lin; it felt stagy and unrealistic, more suited to a fantasy-tinged kung fu film than to the sort of romance I favor (dramatic but rooted in reality). As well, it felt a little stereotypical: our heroine is (part) Asian; of course she’s trained to kill a man with her bare hands and her ingenuity.

But I came to realize that even if Catherine has some elements to her character that somehow manage to feel to me both high-concept and clichéd, she really is a unique and fully realized character. She was born into a world where her sex marked her as worthless, and her whole life is about proving her worth to those she loves: her mother, her amah, her tutor Gordon, Da-ren, Leighton. She has as strong a sense of duty as any romance protagonist I can think of. Once she was willing to give up everything for love, and that ended badly for her and it’s marked her life ever since.

Leighton feels a bit less finely drawn for much of the book; he’s closed up in both his past and present incarnations and even when we get his perspective it’s pretty opaque. For this reason, and a couple of others, I was firmly Team Catherine when they parted for the first time (even if her trying to kill him was clearly an overreaction).

One aspect of the story that I found strange was the role that Catherine’s racial heritage does (or rather doesn’t) play. There is no indication that Ying-ying’s being half-English/half-Chinese has any effect on her status in the household that she grows up in in China. I know nothing about that time/place/culture and so can’t say for certain that it would or should have been an issue, but it feels odd that it’s never even remarked upon. After her arrival in England, as far as I could tell, none of the people she meets are even aware that she’s half-Chinese, which again, struck me as odd. I sort of wondered – why make her biracial and then do nothing with it?

While we get plenty of flashbacks between the earlier meeting and the present day story, the details of both characters’ pasts only come out in dribs and drabs and really sort of have to be put together by the reader in the end; even then some holes remained. I have mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, I appreciate not having everything spoon-fed to me (when there is a bit of an info-dump concerning the reason for Lin’s enmity towards Ying-ying, it felt awkward and out of place). On the other hand, sometimes it almost felt like My Beautiful Enemy was a sequel to another book that better explained the h/h’s pasts. For Leighton, there is a lot of business having to do with his father, mother, uncle and brother, and I think I only ever understood half of it. For Catherine, there’s her relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship with Da-ren, her amah (who apparently had some unique talents and a violent death that I didn’t really get), her tutor (his death was similarly murky), and an evil, lecherous stepbrother whose actions actually play a rather large part in Catherine’s life but who is otherwise only barely referenced a few times.

My Beautiful Enemy had some strong parallels to one of my favorite Laura Kinsale books, The Dream Hunter. Both concern an English hero in foreign lands meeting a heroine disguised as a boy, and switch back and forth between the past and a present in which the h/h must reconcile their misperceptions of each other with reality.  For reminding me of the Kinsale book (and not paling terribly in comparison), it qualifies as a strong success. My grade for this book is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

24 Comments

  1. cleo
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 12:37:39

    Thanks for reviewing this. I read a review of the prequel (http://loveinthemargins.com/2014/07/29/the-hidden-blade-by-sherry-thomas/) and was wondering if I had to read it to read this one (which seems more like my cup of tea than the prequel). And it sounds like the answer is not really, but it may help explain the backstory.

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  2. Ros
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 13:34:14

    I don’t mind an occasional flashback but with Sherry Thomas’s books I just wish she would tell a story starting at the beginning and going on to the end. I don’t like having two parallel narratives running through a book.

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  3. Mandi
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 14:09:16

    I had a really hard time getting into this one – but I didn’t know there was a prequel novella. Maybe if I had read that. The premise sounded awesome but I couldn’t connect with the story. I’ve loved her work in the past though.

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  4. srs
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 14:32:44

    I read this over the weekend and have really mixed feelings about it. I definitely agree that a lot of the characters’ backstories were left underdeveloped. The fact that there’s a prequel novella explains a lot, but that actually makes me think less of the author because it feels a bit like a cash grab. I generally like prequel/companion novellas because they deepen my knowledge of the main story, but for that to work the main story needs to stand completely on its own. In this case, it felt like I was coming into the book on its 3rd or 4th chapter. I ultimately enjoyed the book fine, I guess, as I really did like the parts of the story that were set in China, but I think this will be the last time I buy anything from Sherry Thomas. Her books are really hit or miss for me and the ones that don’t work just leave me feeling angry and unsatisfied.

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  5. hapax
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 15:16:16

    Hmm. I read the first part of the book when it was posted online (I don’t remember if it was here or somewhere else) and was ambivalent. While I I love Sherry Thomas’s prose, I have difficulty connecting to her characters (except in her YA book, which iirc y’all didn’t care for) and the heroine in this case (beautiful half-Asian kung-fu expert with a secret mission and a Tragic Past) seemed awfully close to fetish fuel for my tastes.

    Now to read that the hero remains opaque, and nothing is ever done with her biracial status… eh, maybe I’ll go re-read THE DREAM HUNTER.

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  6. lear
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 15:57:11

    I read the prequel first, and definitely thought it was necessary to make the reading experience whole. I don’t know why it wasn’t just included in the novel, except that its inclusion wouldn’t fit the split timeline narrative. It makes Leighton all the more understandable (not that Ying-Ying is any less sympathetic for the reading) and all the more worthy of heart pangs that I normally associate with a Sherry Thomas book. You even understand Lin more, psychotic disaster and all.

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  7. Mims
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 18:29:12

    The prequel is a full length novel, not a novella. I really liked it, but then Sherry Thomas is my catnip. This probably should’ve been published as a duology instead of a “prequel”, but since My Beautiful Assassin is a traditional romance I can see why it wasn’t.

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  8. Jennie
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 18:48:19

    @cleo: I’m thinking reading the prequel first would have made my experience reading this one richer. I do have it now, but I’m a little reluctant to read it – several of the characters that I think it deals with are dead in the later book and that’s a bit depressing to me.

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  9. Jennie
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 18:50:49

    @hapax: On the surface the heroine has some cartoonish aspects that are a little unsettling, but when you read the story, she’s actually a great heroine. This is where I wish I’d read the prequel first; I probably wouldn’t have developed these prejudices about her when reading My Beautiful Enemy that I sort of had to overcome.

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  10. Elinor Aspen
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 18:50:52

    I read the My Beautiful Enemy excerpt that was included at the end of The Luckiest Lady in London, and it really turned me off. I love Sherry Thomas’ historical romances, but this once feels like a hybrid between historical romance and urban fantasy. I very occasionally enjoy urban fantasy, but I prefer it in a contemporary setting.

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  11. Brigid
    Aug 05, 2014 @ 20:12:47

    But wouldn’t it turn into an issue book if her racial status was addressed too much? I kind of think too many authors use race to attract readers instead of just making it part of who the character is. She’s half Chinese, that’s it. Just like a white character is white, that’s all. But on the other hand, I also think it could be slightly historically inaccurate. I don’t know what the author’s intent with this might have been, but I’m guessing she wanted her readers to not see her character’s race as an issue. I’m so looking forward to the book, though. Lovely review. How do you write such wonderful reviews, Jennie? I’m envious.

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  12. Elgee
    Aug 06, 2014 @ 09:30:14

    I read both the prequel The Hidden Blade and My Beautiful Enemy, and I loved them both. However, I think that to truly enjoy the second book, you have to read the first. Otherwise, readers miss entire layers of motives and emotions that drive the characters (and a great deal of the action) in My Beautiful Enemy. I think, in this case, the two books are truly a set that complete each other.

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  13. Quynh Tran
    Aug 07, 2014 @ 00:20:42

    Sometimes children of mixed race do not look mixed. My niece is half Vietnamese/Causcasian. She does not look asian at all, not even her skin tone. That’s why I think it’s believable that the heroine did not experience any noticeable racism in the book. I just finished My Beautiful Enemy and am deeply satisfied. I did read the prequel and think it everything should have been packaged in one book. I wonder if publishers have an unwritten rule nowadays that dictate romances not exceed 350 pages.

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  14. srs
    Aug 07, 2014 @ 09:12:10

    The more I think about it, the more annoyed I am that there’s separate book I need to buy to make reading this one feel complete. I don’t care that it’s only $0.99! I hate that there was no indication that the physical book I bought from a bookstore is incomplete without reading an e-only prequel. I probably would have given My Beautiful Enemy a B right after I finished reading, but on reflection I’m downgrading my grade to C+. Although the writing engaged me, there are too many holes for it to work well as a standalone book.

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  15. Msaggie
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 03:42:29

    I did enjoy My Beautiful Enemy and am currently still reading the prequel. I think there is a lot of backstory in the prequel, but My Beautiful Enemy can be enjoyed without reading the prequel – the prequel makes it more complete though. I think Catherine/Ying Ying probably looks more Caucasian than Chinese (as many Eurasian children do), and thus would not look out of place in England. With her light colored eyes, she probably would have stuck out in China. However, when she met Leighton in what is now Xinjiang province, she would have fit in, as many native Xinjiang residents look Caucasian, as they are not Han Chinese anyway. The scene in the cave made me think of the movie version of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

    I really enjoyed the book, but felt the Wuxia elements were very distracting. This is a very toned down book, from the sensuality rating, compared to previous Sherry Thomas books. It’s very much “closed bedroom door” – maybe I am a bit surprised as the last Sherry Thomas I read was The Bride of Larkspear

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  16. Jennie
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 23:32:36

    @Brigid: You’re so sweet! I always feel like my reviews are weird because I find it so much easier to articulate what doesn’t work for me than what does.

    The only reason I thought that race should be an issue because of the time and places Catherine lived in. I’m not sure I even thought it should be an issue in England, especially if she looked fairly white, but I wouldn’t have minded a reference to her appearance. It seemed like the people she encountered in England who knew she’d grown up in China nonetheless assumed she was totally white; I would expect at least more curiosity about her antecedents, given the upper-class British preoccupation with status.

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  17. Jennie
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 23:35:59

    @Msaggie: That was what I was kind of curious about – how her status as biracial affected how she was treated growing up. But now I’m assuming maybe that’s dealt with in the prequel. It just seemed weird that there were a few references, I think, to her reduced status as a female, but none about her having an English father (or a courtesan for a mother, for that matter). But I’m guessing her status was somewhat unique in her stepfather’s household.

    I wondered about the tameness of the love scenes. I didn’t care either way, but they were markedly more PG than I expect from this author, or from romances in general, so it was clearly a very conscious choice.

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  18. Cassia
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 10:14:23

    I thought that the prequel to this book, The Hidden Blade, was totally kick-ass, and I would in fact recommend it over My Beautiful Enemy, although that book was also really good.

    Um, I think I might be able to give a useful perspective on the racism issue in this book, as I myself am half-Chinese, half-English, just like the heroine of My Beautiful Enemy, Catherine Blade. I absolutely do believe that back in the Victorian era, her Chinese blood (as they’d say) would have been of great interest and comment in England, not to mention her illegitimacy, her class, her education, her father’s profession, her mother’s respectability, and so on and so forth – Sherry Thomas is a great writer, but she doesn’t half underestimate how unbelievably snobbish the British were and just how important one’s background was considered to be, in any of her books, not just this one (I’ve read them all…). She does make a stab at this in this particular book by noting that as Catherine had never been introduced by a known third party to Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase she was considered to be inherently suspect, but frankly speaking, in real life she would never have been accepted by good society the way she was at the engagement ball (unless, of course, she was known to have spectacular amounts of cash).

    On the other hand, I personally didn’t care that racism wasn’t shown – maybe I enjoyed the books more without it, actually – but really, really enjoyed the bi-culturalism of the books. I kept recognising aspects of Chinese culture that I knew. I think that’s why I particularly liked the prequel compared to My Beautiful Enemy, as it showed Catherine’s life growing up in Imperial China. The detail was so rich and the understanding of the culture was spot-on, I was utterly absorbed in the book and found myself really relating to Ying-Ying. It was more difficult for me to immerse myself in My Beautiful Enemy because it was mostly set in England, and there just wasn’t the same depth, detail or logic to the world there. But how cool for me to read a novel with kick-ass female protagonist with the same double-cultural background.

    A couple of more thoughts:
    - I loved the Wuxia fighting, but I probably don’t see it as cartoonish the way pure Westerners might do as I’ve been exposed to it so much in films and books in China. I actually know people who practice Qigong – the whole semi-mystic gathering of “chi” business – and have seen some very strange stuff that I’m not sure how was achieved (like setting paper on fire with just apparent pure thought), so I guess suspension of disbelief with regards to Catherine’s abilities was easier for me.
    - For what it’s worth, English people think I look Chinese and Chinese people think I look like I’m from Xinjiang (West China). I have other friends of the same mix as me and they vary as to how Chinese or Caucasian they look. My niece who is also half-Chinese/half-English has the very dark grey eyes that Catherine is described to have – they’re beautiful.
    - Oh, the love story? It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the main attraction for me in these pair of novels. I still think that “Not Quite A Husband” is the best from Sherry Thomas in this regard.

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  19. Jennie
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 18:36:26

    @Cassia: Thanks for your perspective. I wasn’t so much bothered that there wasn’t racism shown as I felt like the lack of addressing of the issue was another sort of missing piece that confused me a bit. (Though I gave the book an A- anyway, so obviously I liked it.) Knowing about the prequel makes some of the missing pieces clearer; I just wish I’d read these in order.

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  20. April
    Aug 12, 2014 @ 14:26:27

    I wondered as I read these two books together, if Sherry Thomas really wanted to publish an epic length romance novel á la Kinsale or Judith Ivory, but her publishers refused to allow a novel longer than the standard 370 pages. This would explain the prequel novel.

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  21. J3nny
    Aug 16, 2014 @ 14:08:47

    I read the prequel first and then My Beautiful Enemy and I enjoyed both. I strongly recommended reading the prequel first. You’ll enjoy this book even more.

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  22. Kim
    Aug 20, 2014 @ 13:04:19

    I read the prequel first and am glad that I did. A lot of the characters mentioned in My Beautiful Enemy, such as Hugh, Amah and Mrs. Delaney, played prominent roles in The Hidden Blade. Also, I thought that Leighton was a wonderful hero, but you only understood his quiet demeanor if you read the prequel.

    Catherine’s background was more fully addressed in the prequel. There was prejudice, but she was shielded from much of it because she wasn’t allowed to leave the compound. The book went into great detail about how Chinese society would look upon Catherine’s mixed heritage and how women were devalued compared to men. Much of this was left out of My Beautiful Enemy.

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  23. Jennie
    Aug 20, 2014 @ 20:06:48

    @Kim: That was the one thing that I did get a sense of from the second book – that Catherine was especially conscious of her supposed lack of worth as a female.

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  24. Debbie
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 08:32:38

    I’ve read and enjoyed both books. Sherry Thomas always makes me cry. This is a very minor detail, but I do wonder who was chaperoning Miss Chase when she became engaged and/or while her mother and aunt were abroad.

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