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 (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-.