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REVIEW: My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin

“Yan Ling tries hard to be servile–it’s what’s expected of a girl of her class. Being intelligent and strong-minded, she finds it a constant battle.

Proud Fei Long is unimpressed by her spirit–until he realizes she’s the answer to his problems. He has to deliver the emperor a “princess.” In two months can he train a tea girl to pass as a noblewoman?

Yet it’s hard to teach good etiquette when all Fei Long wants to do is break it, by taking this tea girl for his own….”

Dear Ms. Lin,

Some my favorite movies use the “Pygmalion” theme so I was psyched to see a Tang Dynasty version of it. I love how you’ve transplanted it to China and appropriated the heqin marriages as a springboard for the plot. Yan Ling is a tea shop girl instead of a flower girl and ultimately doesn’t need to pass herself off as a Duchess at an Embassy Ball – she needs to become a grand Lady in order to be accepted as a Princess. Fei Long isn’t an irascible language teacher but a man desperate to salvage the family honor which demands that a sister be delivered to become a foreign bride. Still there are hints of Eliza Doolittle learning to speak and walk with a book on her head. Yan Ling must master her sleeves and her posture. She’s got to lose the dialect in her speech and try to learn to write. I also wondered how on earth she’d master learning to write and read Chinese in such a short amount of time but the ultimate goal revealed by Fei Long, and the way this is used to reveal how his feelings grow for her from an early stage, make sense.

My Fair Concubine;¬†Fei Long’s so focused and dutiful – in what he demands of himself as the only son of his father and also as master of the Chang family and servants. What’s expected of him by others adds another layer and after that is his sense of duty to provide for Yan now that she’s under his protection in his house. Then there are the boundaries he keeps between himself and any hint of taking advantage of women not of his class in society. Oh, and there’s also what will be demanded of Yan in her substitute place as the family daughter who is supposed to be a marriage alliance bride for the empire. Fei Long’s got a lot of obstacles in his path to his HEA.

And it takes a woman like Yan Ling to ultimately shatter his rigid control. From their first meeting she shows that she won’t let herself be thought of as nothing. She does know her place in society but she won’t let herself be disrespected. She’s aware that the opportunity presented to her is more than she ever dared to hope for – a woman of position who will never again worry about her place in a household, her source of food or clothes, or how much work she has to do in order to be allowed to stay. The wolf isn’t going to howl at her door anymore. But the longer her training goes on, the more she feels the Chang household is her home and that the people there are her family. The price she’ll have to pay for her new life, she discovers, is going to be steep.

Yan Ling challenges Fei Long without being the dreaded feisty romance heroine. She needles him to accept the changes in her. She makes him see that she’s not an humble tea girl, a squashed bean bun on the road of life, an insignificant female any longer. The training has reinvented her and awakened the true woman inside of her. She’s becoming Fei Long’s consort battleship. She puts him in his place, refuses to let him see her as lesser than he is – in short she shows him her new found strength of self.

But then what? Yan and Fei Long know, individually, that they’re falling in love – though you hide Fei’s true feelings for a bit longer, but how can they resolve their love with the duty demanded of him and the promise she’s made? Loss of respect in the city and the chance for advancement in the Imperial household will doom the Chang family to ignominy and thus endanger the entire household. How can Fei Long allow that of servants who have been in their employ for generations? How can Yan reduce the people she’s come to love to being pieced out to other households or being as hungry as she once was? Her sense of duty to the Chang name and people is growing day by day. The answer was staring everyone in the face the whole time yet while my mind was furiously debating if Fei Long and Yan would run or stay, it never crossed my mind. It’s an elegantly simple solution and I’m smacking myself that I never thought of it.

Yan and Fei Long are good for each other. She loosens him up and gets him to laugh again as well as want to confide in her while he shakes up her practical side a little. He’s the first one to recognize her audaciousness and then see it as a strength. She’s got as strong a personality as he does and probably won’t let him get away with shit.

I enjoyed the secondary characters too. Spirited Dao, irreverent Li Bai Shen with a tiny hint of Jackie Chan?, devoted Old Man Liang – they flesh out the story with believability, humor and love. Fei Long might feel himself bound to take care of them but they also take care of or stand by him when he needs it.

The wealth of detail included in the story is staggering when I look back after finishing the book: everyday things and great important things. There is enough explanation for what is needed to be in the book but the stuff doesn’t stagnate into an info dump. After doing a little internet investigation, I can also see why you have chosen the Tang Dynasty for the setting of your stories so far. There are a few things I’m curious about. Why are Yan Ling and Fei Long’s names not translated whereas Pearl’s is? What is the name of the evil money lender? It showed up on my Sony as Z?u. What is the 10 suns archery contest? What kind of game is xiangqi? Are the names of the gardens and nunnery historical or from your imagination? I’m still not sure I entirely understand why Lady Min leaving the household for a nunnery would cast the Chang family into shame. Because they would be thought to not be taking care of the household members? Unable to afford her upkeep? Casting her off? What exactly was the role of a concubine in this age? More like a mistress? Or a second wife?

This is the first full length story of yours I’ve read and I enjoyed it very much. I hope Yan Ling regains the sense of curiosity and wonder that Fei Long discovers he enjoys so much in her and that she keeps him from getting into too much trouble with Li Bai. B

~Jayne

 

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

21 Comments

  1. Janine
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 13:08:43

    I have this TBR so I’m glad to hear you liked it. I’ve heard good things about it from another friend as well. The cover is lovely, too.

  2. peggy h
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 13:13:51

    I’ve read all of Jeannie’s Harlequin novels and novellas and this is probably my favorite so far. Thanks for the review.

  3. Jayne
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 13:14:19

    @Janine: I totally agree re: the cover. She’s had pretty good luck with her covers.

  4. Maili
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 14:30:49

    I wish the title was something else, though. There’s nothing in common between London’s Mayfair and Lin’s characters/setting, is there?

  5. Jayne
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 14:53:19

    @Maili: Well, I do think Concubine could have been changed to something else as there is never any plan to make Yan Ling anyone’s concubine. But the plot does revolve around Fei Long taking a lower class woman and teaching her to enable her to pass herself off as being of a higher rank in society than she is.

  6. Laura Florand
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 18:06:03

    This sounds excellent. I love how vividly she brings readers into the world in her books.

  7. Cecilia Grant
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 19:00:08

    @Maili: Whoa. I’ve been aware of My Fair Lady for most of my life and I never once spotted the “My Fair”/ “Mayfair” joke. My mind is blown.

    This book is on my buy list, partly because I’m a sucker for a “What could possibly go wrong?” setup, and partly because of the gorgeous cover.

  8. SonomaLass
    Jul 16, 2012 @ 20:20:24

    I have enjoyed all of Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty novels and novellas. She evokes the time and place so well, and it’s such a nice change from the usual historical settings. I’m looking forward to this one.

  9. Amy
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 03:16:28

    Janye: Thanks for the review. I have enjoyed Jeannie Lin’s historical romances and I didn’t realize she had another new release. As a Chinese American, I love the fact that she sets her stories in the Tang Dynasty, and, with one exception, she actually has Chinese couples in her stories.

    While I haven’t read this book, I think I can answer two of your questions. “What kind of game is xiangqi?” That “sounds” like the term for Chinese chess. “What exactly was the role of a concubine in this age? More like a mistress? Or a second wife?” Unless the author is using the term differently, concubines during that time should refer to the second (or third, fourth, etc.) wife in a household.

  10. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 06:02:07

    Thank you Jayne for the review!

    I did want to answer a couple questions as they pinpoint some more specific details in the book:
    The evil moneylender was named “Zou” but had an accented vowel over the “o” I don’t always accent all the names or words, but in this case I did because it actually means Ox or Bull, hence his nickname. I’ve done it in the past for specific words and phrases with a meaning I didn’t want to get lost. Now that I know the digital formatting process doesn’t check those, I’ll stop doing that. I’m so sorry that’s in there since it’s quite jarring.

    I occasionally use “The Bull” to refer to him to give the reader a break from seeing so many foreign names together and to make it easier to differentiate. For the same reason, Pearl is translated because she has a very small part but is repeatedly mentioned and I didn’t want to get her confused with other female secondaries. I know some readers may not have an issue at all with yet another Chinese name, so it’s perhaps unnecessary on my part. Plus I wanted her name to have some connotation of being sheltered and precious so I chose to translate her name since she’s a figurehead more than a fleshed out character. (Some days, I really want to be able to just name someone Kate or Mary)

    The names of the gardens and nunneries are all made up, but they are reminiscent of names used in the period. For instance, the Pear Blossom Garden is a nod to “The Pear Garden” which was actually the name of the first known operatic troupe formed by a Tang Dynasty Emperor. I don’t ever expect readers to need to know these connections, so I really appreciated that Jayne noticed and was interested in the detail.

    Archery contests were very popular in the Tang Dynasty and though sports betting was technically illegal, authorities turned a blind eye on it because of the popularity. The use of the 10 suns in a contest is a format I made up for dramatic effect and references the legend of Houyi and the Ten Suns, a popular mythological tale in China. I put historical fact & a bit of folklore together to create this event and again am so pleased that readers seem interested in the contest.

    Thank you Mary for the answers regarding “xianqi” and concubines! A concubine is similar to a mistress or a second wife, though my understanding is that a concubine doesn’t really have as the same rights and privileges as the principle wife. However, she may live in the same household and is openly accepted as a secondary or lesser wife. Min’s dramatic leaving of the household is only scandalous in that family matters are a private thing and Fei Long would want to have some harmony and control over his household rather than having everyone running wild — this isn’t so different from Western culture in this respect. Going to a nunnery, however, isn’t shameful at all. It would be quite expected for a concubine-widow to do so.

    Readers have expressed an interest in a separate Historical Notes section in the past, but unfortunately there’s no space for it in a category-length book (I think we get a half page for acknowledgments and one page for a Dear Reader letter). It’s my hope that readers don’t need to “know” the intricate details to understand and enjoy the books, but the references are there for those of us who appreciate historical and cultural details and since Chinese culture is inherently very symbolic — the very nature of the written language makes it so — these symbols and references, though they describe imagined places and events, represent what I hope to be culturally accurate creations.

  11. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 06:22:52

    @Amy: Thanks Amy! I appreciate you taking the time to help clue me in to the details. Must now investigate historical chess ….

  12. Patricia Eimer
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 06:34:16

    Oh this sounds really good. I’m going to have to go find this.

  13. Ros
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 06:35:42

    @Maili: I cannot believe that I have only just seen the Mayfair/My Fair pun. I must have watched that film 100 times in the last 39 years. *is dim*

  14. Ros
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 06:36:28

    @Cecilia Grant: So glad it’s not just me!

  15. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 06:38:05

    @Jeannie Lin: Oooh, lots of delicious facts to delve into. I used to bedevil poor Michelle Styles for details about her Roman era books and now it’s your turn. ;)

    I’m not sure where the accent in Zou’s name went wrong. I buy from the Harlequin website then load my ebooks via Calibre onto my Sony. It might just be something in this process that turned the name into Z?u.

    Personally, I didn’t have a problem keeping the character’s names straight. They were different enough that I could tell them apart. But then some books with Western names can be an issue if they’re too close. I also tried to discover the meanings of Yan Ling and Fei Long’s names and came up with Melodious Jade and something about Dragon. Am I anywhere close?

    Thanks again for answering my questions and let me repeat that I love discovering new things via the books I read.

  16. Jayne
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 06:44:41

    @Patricia Eimer: It’s a June 2012 Harlequin release so I would hope it’s still fairly easy to get your hands on.

  17. Jeannie Lin
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 13:17:47

    @Jayne: I had read some of Michelle Styles’ ancient Rome books way back when, long before attempting to write. I’m sure she, like me, appreciates being able to share the research info that doesn’t get onto the page — since it takes so much effort to gather it!

    Fei Long – means “flying dragon”. Yan Ling, I didn’t choose the name with a meaning in mind so I’m not sure what it means. A quick look on 2000-names.com reveals that “Yan” means “swallow” and “Ling” means “clever”. That would have been neat of me to intend her to be a clever little bird, but alas, I didn’t

  18. MrsJoseph
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 15:45:04

    Ooooh! This sounds delightful and I’ve always loved My Fair Lady. Sold!

  19. Sheri Cobb South
    Jul 18, 2012 @ 13:34:40

    I bought this book because it looked like a cross between My Fair Lady and Mulan. I’m glad to know you liked it, Jayne, because we seem to have similar tastes. Maybe I’ll read this one on the plane to Anaheim next week for RWA!

  20. On Chinese Names | Jeannie Lin
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 09:27:37

    [...] questions about my naming choices, such as to why I named all my characters with Chinese names in My Fair Concubine, but Fei Long’s sister Pearl is referred to by a translated [...]

  21. DUAL REVIEW: An Illicit Temptation by Jeannie Lin
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 06:55:10

    […] felt incomplete to me. I bet, however, if I’d read the companion novel, My Fair Concubine (reviewed here), I would have appreciated your novella more. Jayne did read My Fair Concubine and shared her […]

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