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REVIEW: The Concubine by Jade Lee

Dear Ms. Lee,

9bc456b9-8843-437a-a705-1223726c5901img100Like Jane, I’m biased towards books featuring Asian heroines.   So imagine how excited I was to discover a book that not only featured an Asian heroine but an Asian hero too!   And in historical China!   Even better, the cover depicted them as both distinctly Asian.   That last bit sounds like a strange thing to be excited about but speaking from experience, book covers don’t really have a good history of staying true to a character’s ethnicity.   Just look at the cover of that Harlequin Presents with the Asian heroine that Jane reviewed last month.

Chen Ji Yue is the only daughter of a poor noble.   With little money to their name and two brothers who need to take the Imperial examinations, her family sends her to the Forbidden City.   The previous emperor has recently died and his son has newly ascended the throne.   And his first duty as emperor is to produce an heir.   To this end, he sends notice to all the eligible young women that he is seeking an empress.   And that’s not all: he also seeks four favored concubines and enough women to fill the two tiers of harems below that.   So even though any of these roles would fulfill her goals, Ji Yue’s goal is to be chosen as empress because she’s been raised her entire life to be a political wife.

Sun Bo Tao is the emperor’s cousin and childhood best friend.   With no real position, money, or title to his name, he’s forced to live on the emperor’s whims.   And judging by what we see in the story, the emperor is a capricious man.   Some readers might find that off-putting but I enjoyed seeing someone raised to be emperor actually act like an emperor.   He thinks he’s a god so he acts like he is one, even if this means being cruel to his dearest friends.   When Bo Tao suggests that his best friend focus on the impending visit of a group of Dutch envoys instead of searching for an empress, the emperor punishes him by placing in charge of the Festival of Fertility — the very search for the new empress he was advocating against.

This is an immensely likeable book.   Even with the Asian leads and setting, the story itself is a great read.   Ji Yue isn’t the most beautiful of women so she was taught to use her brain, and the ways in which she maneuvers through the candidate search show just how clever she really is.   She also has an insight into current events (the Dutch envoys, the civil unrest in China) that show how canny she is about politics and ruling, proving just how good an empress she would be — if the emperor were interested in a woman who was more than a womb, which, unfortunately for her, he is not.

Bo Tao is the classic example of someone who can’t escape his past and the mistakes of his youth.   As the emperor’s childhood friend, they used to run wild in the Forbidden City and he is infamous for being an unrepentant seducer.   At least that’s what everyone says.   As we see from his perspective, however, Bo Tao is older, wiser, and more responsible than the emperor.   He may have a bad reputation but there’s no sign he’s acted that way in a long time.   If anything else, he’s doing all he can to win the adviser position the emperor’s been promising him since forever.

I admit harem stories aren’t my favorite so I’m not sure how this holds up to that trope, but I do like stories in which the protagonist goes after one person, only to discover another person (usually the best friend or sibling) is more suited for them.   And for me, the story delivered on that.   Ji Yue used all her strengths to try and win the emperor’s affection: her intelligence, her political savvy, her cleverness.   But in a search for the perfect woman to bear the imperial heir, those traits aren’t at the top of the list.   Or anywhere near the middle, for that matter.   Bo Tao views the Festival as nothing more than an inconvenient annoyance and has no desire to spend his time with desperate virgins panting after his best friend.   But as he spends more time with Ji Yue, he discovers that some women — and this woman in particular — deserve better than the life they’d get in the Forbidden City and that in fact she’d be wasted as the emperor’s wife.   The way they deny their attraction to one another while trying to keep it a secret from everyone else was delightful.

Some readers might find the ending to be a deus ex machina but in all honesty, I can’t see Ji Yue and Bo Tao getting their HEA in any other way without completely violating the limitations placed upon the story by the historical setting.   For other readers, however, I think this is a story that makes excellent use of familiar romance tropes — the poor heroine who needs to earn money for her family, the reformed bad boy hero who falls in love with the woman promised to his best friend — and breathes new life into them by using them in a culture and time period not often found in the genre.   B

My regards,

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or ebook format from Harlequin.   It is a February release and you can only get the early releaseas at   Smart or what?

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!


  1. SonomaLass
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:08:43

    Thanks, Jia, for reviewing this. Sounds like a book I’d really like, so I will add it to my pile!

  2. Jane
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:11:47

    If the book is half as good as your review makes it out to be, I’ll be in seventh heaven. Am going to read that this weekend.

  3. Jia
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:26:47

    To be honest, I’m still impressed by the fact that both leads are Asian! While one of the books in Jade Lee’s Tigress series did feature both an Asian hero and heroine, those books didn’t work so well for me. I guess because of the ritualized sex that became somewhat repetitive at times. So it was refreshing to read a book by her without that aspect!

  4. MaryK
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:33:11

    I’m going to try this one. I think it’ll be the first Blaze I’ve ever bought new.

  5. Kalen Hughes
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:34:32

    I don’t normally read category, but I’m clicking over to order this NOW . . .

  6. Kimber An
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:39:50

    Asian characters in a story set in Asia and they actually look Asian on the cover too? I’ll keep an eye on this one!

  7. jmc
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:41:39

    I didn’t realize that the Blaze line included historicals — thought it was contemporary only. Sounds interesting, must check it out.

  8. Kalen Hughes
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:48:41

    Ok, I bought it. Can’t wait to get home and download it . . . have I mentioned that this whole eBook Reader is going to be my downfall? It's instant gratification city (and boy do I now resent it when I can't just click-buy-read).

  9. Jia
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 15:50:24

    @jmc: I think Harlequin is still testing out the idea of historicals in the Blaze line. As far as I know, this is only the second Blaze Historical to be released. The first was Bound to Please by Hope Tarr, which was released last year. I’m sure if there’s a positive response, they’ll publish more though.

  10. Sherry Thomas
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:01:54

    What year is this set in? I looked at the excerpt on her website and it didn’t say.

    The thing about books set in historical China is that the further back it is, the more likely I’m to believe the happy ending. China’s history during the 19th and much of 20th century is totally not a good time for HEA and the Forbidden City, good lord, a terrifying place based on all the telenovelas about the Ci Xi Empress that I’ve watched growing up. Not a single person associated with the royal family ever seem to make it through life unscathed. (Again, based on those telenovelas. :-) Which is kind of how Chinese view history, one long sad soap opera.)

  11. Sayoko
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:11:35

    Wow, times are changing! *_*
    Thanks for the review, I’m rushing to buy the book, it sounds great! And I’m surprised to see this new line of Blaze Historicals. I hope they’ll release more innovative romances like this one, and not just another load of Regencies… We really need more varied settings. At least, I do. LOL.

  12. Keishon
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:27:01

    Will buy this even though my track record with this author is not good.

  13. JulieLeto
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:27:47

    Betina Krahn has one coming up and so does Pat Potter. But yes, they are watching sales very closely and the historicals will only continue if the sales are strong.

    In regard to the accurate cover, I think it helps that the senior editor of the line is married to an Asian man and is very conscious of ethnicity. I love that my Latina heroine and Latino hero on my February Blaze look exactly how I described them!

  14. Jia
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:35:59

    @Sherry Thomas: I believe it was mid-1800s? So yes, that’s what I was referring to when I mentioned the HEA was a deus ex machina so it wasn’t 100% satisfactory (I tend to have a kneejerk reaction to deus ex machina endings; other readers might not be so picky, lol) or believable even though I honestly can’t think of another way it could have been achieved. The book does hint at some of the machinations that go on in the Forbidden City and in the emperor’s harem but it doesn’t really delve into them, probably due to the length restrictions of a category. Part of me would like to read a novel that explores that sort of intrigue more thoroughly, though.

    @Keishon: If it’s any consolation, I liked this one far more than her Tigress books, which I found tiresome after a while. I haven’t read the dragon one, though, so I can’t compare this one with that one.

    @Sayoko: I don’t think you’re the only one. :)

  15. Jules Jones
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 18:01:27

    Thank you for that review, it’s now on my Amazon wish list as a reminder for when it’s available here.

  16. sula
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 18:26:16

    ooh, this looks very interesting. I’m going to keep my eyes open next time I’m at Borders.

  17. Jinni Black
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 18:44:38

    I’ll have to try this one. I Read the Tao of Sex because of the Asian hero, but wasn’t wowed by the sex/story. I too eat up any diversity. I’m not a fan of historicals so if these are successful, I hope they spin off into their own line.

    I do have Bound to Please on the TBR pile from Nationals . . . I’ll have to give that one a try as well.

  18. Jia
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 18:46:58

    @Jinni Black: I’ve read the Tao of Sex but didn’t like it very much either. Probably because it was a contemporary and shorter version of her Tigress books which, as I’ve said earlier in these comments, didn’t really care for. (It’s set in the same “universe,” except in modern times.)

  19. Lorelie
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 18:50:55

    I actually picked this one up today. I first zeroed in on the yummy guy, *then* realized the woman was Asian too. And my next thought was (I swear I’m not trying to kiss any butt here) I wonder if DA’s spotted this one. Yeah, I’m sure they have. :D

  20. Wandering Chopsticks
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 23:15:32

    The story sounds great, but even if it didn’t, I’d buy it just to support a romance with an Asian heroine and Asian hero. Maybe then publishers will introduce more romances with Asian characters. I can only hope anyway.

  21. Amy
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 23:25:37

    I, too, grew up watching way too many sad Chinese historical soap operas featuring this era, so it’ll be hard for me to imagine a satisfying romance story with the Forbidden City, Emperor, etc. as the backdrop in the confines of a HQN Blaze novel. But it is so rare to see an Asian male and female depicted as the main characters in a romance novel that I feel I must go buy this book and give it a read. Thank you for the review, as I probably would have missed this one since I don’t normally go out of my way to shop for category romances. Honestly, I had not read category romances for years and only started buying them again in recent months because of the reviews here at DA. So HQN should give you ladies many many thanks for the increase in sales.

  22. Jane
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 23:34:39

    @Amy I’m thrilled that some of our recommendations are working out for you. I can confirm that Harlequin is very good to us in getting us access to books that we are interested in. I’ve also found Harlequin to be one of the most receptive companies when it comes to listening to the readership. There’s alot of eyerolling things that Harlequin does but as far as a customer relations sort of company, I find them to be really great to work with.

  23. Diana
    Jan 24, 2009 @ 00:02:13

    What, a romance featuring not only an Asian heroine but also an Asian hero?! I so have to check that out. Thanks for the heads up.

  24. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 24, 2009 @ 11:45:08

    I love the sound of this book! Another for the electronic TBR!
    There are a lot of calls these days for inter-racial and ethnic stories, and I find them fascinating. I don’t know enough about traditional Chinese ways to try to write an ethnic Chinese heroine, but I was brought up with a multi-racial Indian/British background (mostly Hindu, but some Sikhs), so I’d love to do more of those. And read them, too. With the huge success of the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” I’d say the time is right to see more of these stories. I find it a truly exciting prospect.

  25. Amy
    Jan 25, 2009 @ 13:37:39

    I snapped this up once it came in at the office on Friday — been looking forward to it for months! And you guys might also want to pop by on Feb 1st, too… just sayin’ ;)

  26. Jia
    Jan 25, 2009 @ 14:17:03

    @Amy: Is that a hint, Amy? :D

  27. Amy
    Jan 25, 2009 @ 20:14:19

    @Jia — could be :)

  28. rebyj
    Mar 01, 2009 @ 03:22:50

    I read this tonight. I found it to live up to the B grade , I’d have loved to have more descriptions of their surroundings but I understand how page limits affect category romance.

  29. Sayoko
    Aug 01, 2009 @ 06:52:15

    I had bought the book after reading this review, and I loved it! I wished it was not a short Harlequin Blaze, but a full-fledged single title. Anyway, it was still a remarkable romance.

    I was hoping that the sales were good, but according to this blog:
    the sales tanked because of the Asian setting!

    This goes to show that while online you might find lots of readers wishing for different settings, the average readers only want the *same* historicals set in the British islands…
    What little hope I had for more variety in future romances, got crushed by this little news. YAY.

  30. Jia
    Aug 01, 2009 @ 07:38:17

    Jane and I heard that little bit of news a week or so before RWA. We were both utterly crushed.

  31. If You Like…Multicultural Books | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Nov 09, 2009 @ 04:01:54

    […] Lee, The Concubine, historical set in China featuring two Chinese protagonists. […]

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