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REVIEW x 2: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

Dear Ms. Lin,

Although I had purchased most of your novels, I hadn’t picked one out of my TBR pile to read since your debut, Butterfly Swords. Clearly, it was a mistake to wait so long to try one of your books again, because your most recent novel, The Lotus Palace, blew me away.

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin [Historical] ( A | BN | K | S | G )

The Lotus Palace (reviewed here by Jayne and Sunita) takes place in ninth century China, within the pleasure quarter of the Northern Hamlet (also known as the Pingkang Li). As the novel begins, an earthquake startles the residents of the Lotus Palace, a large establishment inhabited by exclusive courtesans, but it is only the first of a number of events that shake up their lives.

Yue Ying is a maidservant to the Lotus Palace’s most beautiful and sought after lady, the cynical, volatile courtesan Mingyu. Unlike her mistress, Yue Ying is calm, quiet and thoughtful. Also unlike Mingyu, Yue Ying has a face dominated by a large, moon-shaped red birthmark widely considered a blemish. Most people avert their eyes from Yue Ying’s marked face, but one man does not.

Lord Bai Huang is an aristocrat, the scion of a family of respected scholars and advisors to the emperor, but he himself is, in Yue Ying’s viewpoint, “a night owl, a flirt, a spendthrift and an eternal student, having failed the imperial exams three times.” While Lord Bai is ostensibly at the Lotus Palace to court Mingyu, it is Yue Ying whom he cannot look away from.

But Lord Bai is more than he appears at first glance. He has hidden reasons for masquerading as a fool and gambling away exactly a thousand copper coins a week. Yue Ying doesn’t know them, but she senses that Huang is a man keeping closely guarded secrets.

When, one night, Bai Huang claims a kiss from Yue Ying, she strikes him in self-defense. Long before Yue Ying arrived at the Lotus Palace, she was a simple prostitute, one who never had the choice to say no to a man.

But while the slap does serve to make Bai Huang aware of how important consent is to the courtesan’s servant, it does not deter his interest in her. If anything, it intensifies it. When a murder shatters the celebratory decadence of the quarter and Mingyu travels away to visit a protector, Lord Bai turns to the quiet maidservant who fascinates him for help.

The victim is the beautiful courtesan Huilan, a rival of Mingyu’s. Not long before her death, Huilan asked Lord Bai’s assistance, but she died before she could confide in him what dangers she faced. The earthquake a month before had caused a man’s body, hidden in a river boat, to surface. Are the two deaths related?

Bai Huang wants Yue Ying’s help in discovering the answer to this and other questions. But for Yue Ying to aid Bai Huang is no simple thing. Even absent, Mingyu influences Yue Ying’s decisions, for the courtesan can be jealous and Yue Ying fears alienating her.

Moreover, Bai Huang’s family is high-born enough that his association with Yue Ying, a servant and a former prostitute, cannot reflect well on him. And then there is his attraction to her. Yue Ying feels the pull of it as well, but she fears that his touch can only hurt her.

Despite those fears, Yue Ying finds herself in a friendship – or is it a romance? – that grows more and more emotionally precarious.

It is exhilarating to have a man look at her without flinching, without drawing away, with desire in his eyes. It is exciting to steal a kiss in the rain from a man who remains motionless and allows her to have her way, and to feel strong and safe.

But is that safety an illusion, as Bai Huang’s frivolity is an illusion? How can the equal ground they stand on when alone together be anything but shaky, founded as it is over a gulf of social class that is sure to  force them apart?

What secrets is Bai Huang’s hiding? Are Yue-Ying’s feelings for him also an illusion, a self-deception, when she carries secrets of her own? And if it turns out the murderer is closer than they realize, will the man Yue Ying has growing feelings for be able to protect her, and if so, at what cost?

If there is a flaw in The Lotus Palace it is that the outcome of the murder mystery isn’t one we’re given sufficient clues to solve ourselves. But frankly the romance in this book was so lovely that I didn’t care about that much.

I also started the book distracted enough to notice the occasional slightly awkward sentence, but by the time I finished I was glued to the novel like a fly to flypaper.

Here’s the reason why: Yue Ying is a wonderful character, of the “still waters run deep” variety, which is one of my absolute favorite heroine types. She may not be flashy or gorgeous, she may not be the charismatic or the life of the party, but she is observant, perceptive, thoughtful, and her very stillness is what fascinates.

Underneath her quiet surface, Yue Ying has known a lot of sorrow, but it hasn’t dimmed her capacity for love and loyalty, only made her guard her heart and the secrets it holds.

If she is initially careful in every moment she shares with Bai Huang, Yue Ying is ultimately equally careful with every moment—careful to hold it close and cherish it, no matter what she expects the future to bring.

Similarly, Bai Huang, though outwardly carefree, is someone deeper and fiercer beneath his frivolous surface (more so than even he realizes). From early on, when he reveals that even a courtesan’s life—the dead Huilan’s—is of value to him, it is apparent that he is secure enough to want justice and fairness for those “below” his station, and that makes him a great match for Yue Ying.

Huang may not be every woman’s hero, but he is absolutely Yue Ying’s hero, because his loyalty, the permanence of his love, despite enormous obstacles, and his sense of security make him exactly the man she needs to help her feel free to choose her own path.

Yue Ying may not be every man’s chosen bride, but Bai Huang would choose her again, and again, and again – and we can see why, because just as he does for her, she brings out the strength and the courage in him.

And that may be my favorite among the many terrific things in The Lotus Palace. Not the spare, occasionally haunting sentences, not the wonderful sense of place and time, not the atmosphere of the pleasure quarter, etched in carefully chosen words, or even the compelling mysteries behind the well-drawn secondary characters.

Not even the way romance genre tropes are, as Sunita pointed out, seamlessly woven through the world of the Tang Dynasty Pingkang Li, nor Yue Ying’s poignant backstory, which reminded me a bit of Amy Tan’s writing (funnily enough, an author we’ve discussed on Twitter) in that it broke my heart and brought me to tears.

Yes, this book was as emotional as a classic Mary Balogh novel, and I loved that, but my favorite thing is how, in the midst of all I mentioned, these two people see each other, see directly into the other’s soul.

How absolutely right they are for one another. How, though neither one is perfect, they fit together perfectly, like two puzzle pieces that make a complete picture of what love looks like: Not something that mainly tethers and obligates, but something that empowers and frees.

Some books grab you by the throat from the beginning. Others sneak up on you, but prove to be no less powerful for that. For me, this book was in the latter category. It made me cry, and sigh with happiness. It made me grateful I read it, and made me want to tell everyone else to read it too. A-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

16 Comments

  1. Connie
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 12:19:18

    I totally agree with everything you said! Mingyu’s story is coming out soon and I can’t wait.

  2. Lindsay
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 14:56:43

    I absolutely loved this book and you really caught the parts that made me love it so much — the sense of setting and lovely prose were icing on the cake of how real the full cast were, especially in their interactions with each other.

    I read Capturing the Silken Thief before this, but you really don’t need to read one to follow the other. It’s a great companion novella.

  3. Jayne
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:01:02

    @Connie: I’m excited about this one too – and who the hero is going to be!

  4. cleo
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:22:42

    Thanks for the reminder that I want to read this book. I’ve read a few of Lin’s Tang Dynasty books and some have worked better for me than other, but I really like Lin’s voice and world-building. My favorite one so far was Capturing the Silken Thief, so I’m excited to go back to that setting.

    Your description of the h/h really seeing each other and being the right fit for each other sounds like my reader catnip.

  5. Monique
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:28:29

    It’s very simple: Jeannie is awesome. She is brilliant. Her stories are as beautiful as the covers of her books.

  6. Kaetrin
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 19:04:55

    Is it necessary (or recommended) to have read other of Jeannie Lin’s books before diving into this one? I have a couple on the TBR alread but I’ve been hearing lots of buzz about this book (all of it good) so I’m tempted to start here. Can I?

  7. Melanie
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 19:20:07

    What a great review! I bought this a couple of months ago after really enjoying “The Sword Dancer,” but haven’t read it yet. “The Lotus Palace” has now jumped to the top of my TBR.

  8. Lindsay
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 19:56:22

    @Kaetrin: I don’t feel you need to read any of hers together, although several of her books share characters tangentially. The Lotus Palace stands alone just fine.

  9. Kaetrin
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 22:00:12

    @Lindsay: thx :)

  10. Inez Kelley
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 00:15:23

    I’m one of Jeannie’s lucky Beta readers and am blessed to have read all her stories pre-publication, including the never-to-be-published prequel to Butterfly Swords. And so I’ve read her next book.

    Go ahead. Hate me. *cheesy grin*

  11. Meg
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 03:11:47

    I was introduced to Jeannie Lin through the first review of her books on this site, and she’s become an auto-buy author for me.

    What I really love about her work is that even though she was already a great writer with “Butterfly Swords,” you see her work mature and deepen until the you get the utterly complex beauty that is “The Lotus Palace.” I can’t wait to read Mingyu’s story and see how she’s grown.

  12. Janine
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 13:54:40

    I’m so glad there are so many fans of this book here. I know I’m late to the party but I enjoyed it so much.

    @Connie & @Jayne: I am looking forward to it too. They should make a fascinating couple.

    @Lindsay & @cleo: I have Capturing the Silken Thief waiting on my kindle, so it’s good to hear that you enjoyed it.

    @Kaetrin: Yes, definitely. You can start with The Lotus Palace.

    @Inez Kelley: LOL.

    @Meg: This. Because I hadn’t read her books since Butterfly Swords and the novella preceding it, it was really evident to me how much Lin has honed her writing skills. If The Lotus Palace is anything to judge by than she has developed into one of the genre’s best.

    It is such a shame that Harlequin has decided to stop carrying her books in print and I dearly hope it doesn’t stop her from writing more Tang Dynasty historical romances in the future.

  13. SonomaLass
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 20:18:42

    I got an ARC of the next book, The Jade Temptress and was several chapters in before I realized that it was a direct sequel. I had been saving The Lotus Palace, so of course I stopped and went back to read that first.

    I agree with almost everything in this review except that we didn’t have enough clues to solve the mystery on our own; I don’t see that as a bad thing, because we were kept right in the moment with the two main characters, knowing what they knew and no more. For me, that was the most important role for the unsolved murder to serve.

  14. Janine
    Jan 22, 2014 @ 13:33:32

    @SonomaLass: I think the main role of the murder mystery was in bringing Yue Ying and Bai Huang together, and also in showing to Yue Ying that Huang cared about the life of a courtesan, unlike many of his station.

    As you can see from my review and grade, the clue issue was a minor not major one for me, but initially I thought we might get all the clues to be able to solve the murder as a reader would in a mystery novel. There have been some books that straddle both genres, and at first I wasn’t sure if this would be one of them.

    And even when I say that, I don’t mean that I wanted the clues to have been given in a way that was obvious to the characters or to me sooner, but rather that it’s nice when I can look back and say, “I never thought that person was the killer but now that I know who it was, it all makes sense. All the pieces fit.”

    Here that wasn’t exactly the case, but it was still a terrific book.

  15. Tanya
    Feb 13, 2014 @ 17:09:56

    @Janine, wanted you to know I finished The Lotus Palace this week, and while I didn’t love it as much as you did, I liked it a great deal. And more importantly, I LIVED for Mingyu, and have pre-ordered The Jade Temptress. To say I am excited to read that book is an understatement. It was hard for me to concentrate on Yue Ying because I was always waiting to see what Mingyu did next. She is my kind of girl!

  16. Janine
    Feb 13, 2014 @ 17:14:03

    @Tanya: Thanks Tanya! It makes me happy to know you enjoyed it so thanks for letting me know. I agree, Mingyu was a wonderful character (though I adored Yue Ying too) and I’m very much looking forward to The Jade Temptress.

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