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REVIEW x 2: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

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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Jayne’s Best of 2013

Jayne’s Best of 2013

The last few years I’ve done these year end lists, I’ve come up short of 10. I’ve realized either I’m not reading the right books for me, I’m too picky a reader or I’m totally out of touch with what’s popular right now. So when my list kept growing all year long, I began to think – “OMG, I just might make the max this year!”

Well, not only did I make the max, I exceeded it – whoopee! In ecstatic acknowledgement of that I’ve decided to go over the limit of 10. Yes, yes I will. In order by grade and not much else –

Back-Across-the-StyxBack Across the River Styx by Karalynn Lee – This one is so good I read it twice just to be sure that I wasn’t hallucinating about how good it is. When I finished it the second time, I was still as enchanted with it. Since I have more books on hand – print and ebooks – than I will probably ever be able to finish, the fact that I spent time rereading says a lot to me. Greek mythology is perfectly blended with romance. The story arc is complete and satisfactory. The use of historical fact is imaginative and ingenious. I’m running out of adjectives for how good this novella is.

story-guyThe Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers – This one came in for its fair share of criticism but it drew me in from the start and didn’t let go. It’s beautifully written, emotionally engaging and about people who seemed real to me rather than hangers on which to drape an improbable plot. It made me smile as well as cry. It’s also made 2 other DA reviewers’ end of the year lists. ‘Nuff said.

Starting-From-ScratchStarting from Scratch by Stacy Gail – I usually hate amnesia plots, am tired of small town stories and kitsch so for this one to be one of my favorites for 2013 amazed me. Yes, it’s a little heavy on explanations of military life but these go to show what came between the hero and heroine and how much they have to overcome for their HEA. This also backs up the angst, giving it depth instead of leaving it to feel like a shallow check off list of faux emotions to me. I also enjoyed the relationship between the heroine and her best friend from childhood. I’ll be looking for his story.

geek-with-cat-tattooGeek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir – A cat as a narrator? Absolutely and it’s not a shifter story either. The second in this series of three cat siblings finding their forever owner or helping their forever owner find a HEA I loved this one even more than the first from last year. The hero’s shyness and the heroine’s self doubts are perfectly captured. Sam the cat is a wonderful matchmaker and if this one doesn’t make you want to donate to an animal shelter, you have a heart of stone.

Love IrresistiblyLove Irresistibly by Julie James – This is a wonderful relationship story between two well drawn, believable characters who have full lives, friends, believable backstories and can speak lawyer to each other. The conflicts are centered on them rather than an external villain and I felt that I got a multilayered view of them as people and why I should care about them and about them falling in love.

bridgeThe Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher – I think this is probably the most unusual blurb for a book to be offered to Dear Author this year. Two people determined to end it all who try and give the other a reason to live is not a storyline I come across every day. Could this possibly be anything other than a downer to read? Indeed yes, it could be. It’s also an illuminating trip through what two people think makes the best of New York City. The story doesn’t pull punches and never sinks to “feel good” attempts to diminish the real pain the characters have endured and still feel. The ending is hopeful and HFN but I appreciate the fact that it’s real and honest.

sweet-and-sourSweet and Sour by Astrid Amara – I read a lot of holiday themed novellas this year as well as more lgbt stories and this one is good enough to make the “best of” cut. It’s as much the ending of an old relationship as the beginning of a new one which takes a bit of finesse, IMO. It’s also a Hanukkah story and while I can understand that this isn’t considered a major Jewish holiday, it’s still nice to get a holiday story other than one about Christmas.

the-tilted-worldThe Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fenelly – Can an artiste of illegal whiskey and a revenue agent determined to uncover her identity and shut her down find their chance at love in rural Mississippi in 1927? Read this book and you will believe in their slow, gentle romance even as the raging, flooded Mississippi River threatens the town with total destruction. It’s not only a love story but a trip back in time I enjoyed making.

Rhythm-and-BluegrassRhythm and Bluegrass by Molly Harper – This is the second book in the series and I enjoyed it just as much as the first. It’s funny and yet a view of the struggle that many small and not-so-small US towns are faced with in an effort to modernize and survive in today’s global economy. I liked that the conflicts are real, the people are adult about how they deal with them and the hero and heroine have time to let their attraction sizzle a bit before jumping into bed. Nothing felt phony or made up – despite the town name.

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker – What, me read a book set in the world of Jane Austen? At the beginning of the year I would have laughed to think I would but here it is in my top reads of the year. The view of life from below stairs at Longbourn is what drew me in but the descriptions and depictions of the servants as they go about their lives while the major events of “Pride and Prejudice” go on above stairs is what kept me reading. The story, though, isn’t all about how the servants view the Bennett sisters finding love. Instead there is a romance for one of their own that seemed realistic to me. I not only want to believe in their HEA, I do believe it.

Knowing-the-ScoreKnowing the Score by Kat Latham – This one tackled me like a rugby player – in a good way. And by the time I finished it I knew a lot more about the sport than I had. It’s funny, has great dialog and uses UK/US slang brilliantly. The hero should be bottled and sold by the gross. He wins his heroine by being nice to her as well as admiring her work ethic instead of being a prick. The heroine’s virginity might put off readers but it’s made to seem reasonable for her given her past. By the end of the story, I felt that both of them had totally opened themselves to the other and were all set for their HEA.

passion-purple-plumeriaThe Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig – I rejoiced to see this book about an older heroine and older hero finding their HEA. I love that the heroine is shown as competent and intelligent. Also that her hero sees and admires this in her. The modern day parts of the story worked just as well for me which hasn’t always been the case in this series. It’s still going strong and I’m still anticipating the next one, which says volumes.

Carolina-GirlCarolina Girl by Virginia Kantra – Books about small town life often put me off by making the small town into a paean of wonderful. That’s not the case here as both the heroine and hero return to the small Carolina coastal town they couldn’t wait to leave. It’s also has a great family relationship arc that is being carried through the whole series. Though I think readers could start with this one if they wish. Both the hero and heroine mature, make concessions and help each other each with their individual goals as well as their relationship one.

Her-Hesitant-Heart1Her Hesitant Heart by Carla Kelly – I love me a Carla Kelly historical and if it’s a western, that’s the cherry on top. This book might seem like just so much same-old, using standard Kelly tropes, with standard Kelly wry humor to tell the story of two deserving people triumphing over those who want to shame them and/or put them down for acting like honorable adults instead of asshats but, damn it, that’s what I love about her books.

Must Like Kids by Jackie BraunMust Like Kids by Jackie Braun – This isn’t the usual saccharine, baby filled Harlequin offering. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment but overabundance of secret babies and surprise pregnancies of this publisher leaves it wide open for such statements. Given the number of embarrassing tweets, live mic fuckups and other ways public people have dug themselves into holes this year, the set-up is inspired. I enjoyed watching a heroine who is good at her job and a hero willing to gracefully accept her expertise. The children of the story are realistic instead of being plot moppets. The relationship is allowed time to develop and the characterization remains consistent. Too bad about the cover.