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Dear Author

REVIEW: My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas,

Given the current (rocky) state of my relationship with historical romance, I approached your latest book with a certain amount of trepidation. When I’m in a slump, I’m always afraid that my mood will extend to the next book and jinx it somehow (while of course simultaneously hoping the next book will *break* the slump). I did have some hope in this case, though. If my issue with historical romance is at least in part that it all feels so same-old, same-old, I thought I was in safe hands here; a Sherry Thomas book is never boring.

The story opens with an action-packed prologue set on a ship crossing a storm-tossed ocean: Catherine Blade is waiting out the gale in her cabin when she hears an unusual noise, goes to investigate and finds an acquaintance, Mrs. Reynolds, bloodied and beaten. Mrs. Reynolds implores Catherine to go after her sister, Mrs. Chase, who has fled their attacker to the deck.

Catherine, who is more adept at dealing with mysterious assassins than your average Victorian heroine, vanquishes the villain on the deck and saves Mrs. Chase. In the course of a cinematic battle involving flying doors and improbably high vertical leaps, Catherine recognizes the attacker as Lin, an enemy whom she holds responsible for the death of her daughter. Catherine had believed Lin dead – beheaded – years before. Lin disappears over the side of the ship, presumably swallowed by the sea. (Am I spoiling anything if I add a skeptical “yeah, right?” Probably not.)

The next scene is marginally less dramatic, at least on the surface. Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase are being met in London by Mrs. Chase’s daughter, her daughter’s fiance and the fiance’s brother. Catherine is with them when she recognizes the fiance, Captain Leighton Atwood, as someone she’d known years before – a man she believed dead because she thought she’d killed him. (The first chapters of the book really give the impression that Catherine is really bad at knowing when people are dead, but it’s just a coincidence, I guess, that she happens to encounter two such people in quick succession.)

The story then switches to flashbacks. When Catherine and Leighton first meet, she is known as Ying-ying, though she does not actually give him that name or any other. Both are pretending to be someone else when they meet in a desert oasis in Chinese Turkestan. He sees through her male disguise and finds himself intrigued and attracted; they travel together for a short time, in spite of her wariness of him. They part, then meet again, eventually giving into the devastating attraction between them. But the differences between them and the secrets they keep from each other lead to distrust, a resolve on Leighton’s side that they must part, and finally Catherine’s admittedly somewhat rash decision to try to kill her lover.

Catherine began life in China as the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman who died before she was born. She is raised by her amah after her mother dies, and eventually by Da-ren, her stepfather and a high-ranking member of the Chinese royal family. She is in England (in the present storyline) on behalf of Da-ren hunting for two jade tablets, part of a triptych that are believed to contain clues to a hidden treasure (I wasn’t hugely fond of this rather silly aspect of the story). Catherine has been trained in certain arts that make her well-suited to the search. Further, the last possessor of one of the tablets was her beloved, murdered English tutor. She hopes to connect somehow with her memories of him while in England, as well as fulfilling her stepfather’s wish. She never expects to meet a ghost (never mind two) from her past.

As with most (all?) of the Sherry Thomas books that I’ve read, My Beautiful Enemy switches back and forth between two time periods, in this case 1883 and 1891. I recall being surprised to learn that many romance readers don’t like this device (of course, I was also surprised, once upon a time, to discover that a lot of romance readers HATED first-person narratives; I rather like them, at least if I like the narrator). I have to say, I’m not sure I quite get what the objection to flashbacks is. I think they function well in intertwining the meatiest parts of a story with the more prosaic parts, so that there aren’t many lulls in the dramatic tension. I don’t know; flashbacks usually work for me, especially the way this author does them.

The prologue of My Beautiful Enemy put me off slightly, for a couple of reasons. For one, I felt dumped into a chaotic scene with very little context (which may well have been intentional on the author’s part): we are introduced to a heroine who is unusual, to say the least, and shortly she encounters a mortal enemy whom she’d thought dead and we find that she’d lost a child in a horrendous way. It was a lot of pretty heavy information to have dumped on me as a reader before I’d gotten my bearings (and before I felt any connection to the characters). Also, I really didn’t love the martial arts fight Catherine engages in with Lin; it felt stagy and unrealistic, more suited to a fantasy-tinged kung fu film than to the sort of romance I favor (dramatic but rooted in reality). As well, it felt a little stereotypical: our heroine is (part) Asian; of course she’s trained to kill a man with her bare hands and her ingenuity.

But I came to realize that even if Catherine has some elements to her character that somehow manage to feel to me both high-concept and clichéd, she really is a unique and fully realized character. She was born into a world where her sex marked her as worthless, and her whole life is about proving her worth to those she loves: her mother, her amah, her tutor Gordon, Da-ren, Leighton. She has as strong a sense of duty as any romance protagonist I can think of. Once she was willing to give up everything for love, and that ended badly for her and it’s marked her life ever since.

Leighton feels a bit less finely drawn for much of the book; he’s closed up in both his past and present incarnations and even when we get his perspective it’s pretty opaque. For this reason, and a couple of others, I was firmly Team Catherine when they parted for the first time (even if her trying to kill him was clearly an overreaction).

One aspect of the story that I found strange was the role that Catherine’s racial heritage does (or rather doesn’t) play. There is no indication that Ying-ying’s being half-English/half-Chinese has any effect on her status in the household that she grows up in in China. I know nothing about that time/place/culture and so can’t say for certain that it would or should have been an issue, but it feels odd that it’s never even remarked upon. After her arrival in England, as far as I could tell, none of the people she meets are even aware that she’s half-Chinese, which again, struck me as odd. I sort of wondered – why make her biracial and then do nothing with it?

While we get plenty of flashbacks between the earlier meeting and the present day story, the details of both characters’ pasts only come out in dribs and drabs and really sort of have to be put together by the reader in the end; even then some holes remained. I have mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, I appreciate not having everything spoon-fed to me (when there is a bit of an info-dump concerning the reason for Lin’s enmity towards Ying-ying, it felt awkward and out of place). On the other hand, sometimes it almost felt like My Beautiful Enemy was a sequel to another book that better explained the h/h’s pasts. For Leighton, there is a lot of business having to do with his father, mother, uncle and brother, and I think I only ever understood half of it. For Catherine, there’s her relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship with Da-ren, her amah (who apparently had some unique talents and a violent death that I didn’t really get), her tutor (his death was similarly murky), and an evil, lecherous stepbrother whose actions actually play a rather large part in Catherine’s life but who is otherwise only barely referenced a few times.

My Beautiful Enemy had some strong parallels to one of my favorite Laura Kinsale books, The Dream Hunter. Both concern an English hero in foreign lands meeting a heroine disguised as a boy, and switch back and forth between the past and a present in which the h/h must reconcile their misperceptions of each other with reality.  For reminding me of the Kinsale book (and not paling terribly in comparison), it qualifies as a strong success. My grade for this book is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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GROUP REVIEW:  The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

GROUP REVIEW: The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

 

Dear Ms. Lin:

A number of us here at Dear Author have really enjoyed your historical romances set in China, including (and perhaps especially) the Pinkang Li series.  Sunita and Jayne read and recommended The Sword Dancer and they and Janine raved about The Lotus Palace. Not surprisingly, therefore, there has been considerable excitement about its sequel, The Jade Temptress. Willaful hopped on board the Lin train and read The Lotus Palace for SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge and then went straight to The Jade Temptress, and Jayne snuck it into her teetering review pile. It’s rare that a book comes along that generates so much interest and praise, especially one that qualifies in multiple ways as an Unusual Historical, and since three of us couldn’t stay away, we decided a group review was the way to go.

jade-temptressA very brief summary before we dive into the review. Early in the story Mingyu discovers the brutal murder of her most powerful client, General Deng. She immediately summons Constable Wu, despite their conflicted history. Mingyu becomes a prime suspect, and Wu Kaifeng discovers that there are people in high and low places who have professional and personal interests in the outcome. Mingyu and Wu work together to try and clear Mingyu’s name and find the killer as well as the motive behind the murder, and as they spend time together they grow closer, even though their private lives run in parallel tracks that seem fated never to be brought together. The mystery and the romance are skillfully intertwined in this book, and together they create a rich, textured portrayal of medieval Chinese lives as well as a poignant, gripping love story.

Sunita: By the end of my reading of The Lotus Palace Mingyu and Constable Wu had almost (but not quite) stolen the story from Yue-Ying and Bai Huang, so I was really looking forward to seeing their relationship unfold. And I wasn’t disappointed. I would encourage everyone to read The Lotus Palace, of course, but do you think it’s possible to read The Jade Temptress without it?

Willaful: I don’t think readers would have any trouble following The Jade Temptress by itself, although they will encounter some major spoilers for The Lotus Palace. And I do think having a sense of Mingyu and Kaifeng’s uncomfortable history adds depth to this story — though we learn that there was even more to it than was originally revealed to us. Kaifeng had not only questioned Mingyu as a murder suspect, he had, following the usual procedure, also tortured her. He also — contrary to everything we know about him as a man solely committed to the truth and the law — stopped before truly damaging her.

Jayne: Bai Huang and Yue-Ying appear along with Wei-Wei, but they’re there to take part in this story and not just as sequel bait or Family Reunion Time. I think this one stands well on its own but why not read The Lotus Palace first and enjoy even more Lin goodness?

Sunita: One of my favorite aspects of Lin’s worldbuilding is the way she creates cross-class relationship that feel entirely organic. These aren’t people who are specifically rebelling against their own social and economic backgrounds; rather, they find themselves attracted to people who aren’t socially available to them. In some ways these romances feel more powerful to me, and yet the class differences are ever-present and have to be negotiated.

Willaful: As in The Lotus Palace, class is a very important issue here; in some ways, it’s even more complex than a relationship between a lord and a servant. As a constable, Kaifeng is a lowly working man with very little actual authority; what power he has is mostly personal, coming from his strength of personality. Mingyu is deferentially called “Lady” and consorts with men in the highest echelon, yet she is essentially an indentured servant, a bird in a gilded cage. Her influence is also personal, coming from her beauty and carefully acquired charm of manner.

When Mingyu was a murder suspect, Kaifeng had had power over her: “No one came to her defense. For all the compliments and praise the scholars bestowed upon her, she was still nothing more than a diversion.”

Jayne: Mingyu has had her peasant background scrubbed away and polished to a perfect jewel by Madame Sun while Kaifeng has no desire to be anyone but who he is – a mannerless oaf as Mingyu first sees him. But his blunt manner appeals to her because she can trust it over the smooth and practiced schmoozing of the scholars who frequent the Pinkang li.

Willaful: Yes, she ultimately falls for him, not only because he’s “the only man who looks at me as something more than a… a thing” but because “Wu was never anything but what he was.”

Another common theme to both books is the distinction between reality and artifice, in a setting that places a high value on veneer. These are the lessons a courtesan learns:

Feel whatever you needed to feel, but bury it deep. On the surface, there must be tranquility, gaiety and beauty. Such was the facade of the pleasure quarter. Mingyu had become so adept at being pleasing.

Sunita: I really appreciated that Mingyu is not a fake courtesan or an unwilling one, this is how she has made her life. It wasn’t her choice in the beginning, but she has become very successful, and she’s upfront about the benefits it has conferred. When she thinks about leaving this life, it’s not an easy choice.

Jayne: Mingyu has to inform Kaifeng about freedom v. security, which are not the same thing for Mingyu or Yue-Ying as for a man. As women, they must yield some of one for the other.

Willaful: And the security isn’t the only benefit. Her life is full of contradictions: “bondage and servitude on one side, poetry and music on the other.”

Sunita: As in her previous two books, I was completely captivated by the romance. From the beginning of their interactions, you can see that despite their differences in personality and social position, they have important things in common. And their attraction is built on respect and trust, which makes it believable, when they fall in love, that their love will be something real and lasting. For me, this is one of the most compelling aspects of the romances Lin creates. Even if they hadn’t fallen in love, you know that her heroes and heroines would admire and respect each other.

Willaful: Mingyu believes that Wu is immune to her artifices — she’s wrong — and she trusts his integrity. She tells him, “I don’t trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don’t care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his force are. You don’t care who I am, which mean you don’t care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth.” Later, when she realizes that Kaifeng does have feelings for her, it touches her deeply. “[Wu] wanted her simply because he desired her. Her and not some illusion.”

There are inevitable conflicts, because Wu finds it difficult to believe in the real Mingyu, the person inside the beautiful, poised surface.

Jayne: Kaifeng and Mingyu are drawn to each other. He to her fearless independence – her warrior self – and she to the fact that she can’t manipulate him with her beauty and learned wiles. Each is honest with the other – something they can’t be with almost anyone else. It’s telling that Mingyu sends first to Kaifeng when she discovers the General’s body. It’s not that she trusts him more but that she knows he’ll seek the truth of the matter.

I love the slow and gentle way their mutual love is teased out and revealed. He tells her that he knew her regular day to visit her sister – and thus planned his visit on that day to see her. She begins to notice his subtle, almost hidden, humor and crooked smiles. He is helpless not to love her because she is that which he – the consummate policeman – can’t resist, a mystery and she reveals bits and pieces of herself to him over the course of the investigation.

Sunita:  I’ve liked the mysteries in all the previous books, so I may not be the most discerning critic, but I thought the way the mystery, the romance, and the overall story fit together worked even better here than in the others. Thinking about it after I was done, I didn’t think you could have one part without the others. The mystery shaped the romance and vice versa.

Jayne: This time mystery works better for me. The main purpose is to be a framework on which to hang the relationship between Kaifeng and Mingyu. But I wanted to learn the truth behind the murder and was interested in political maneuvering and forensic details Kaifeng knows and uses to help solve the crime. Kaifeng has common sense too – as in how he solves whether or not a youth steals coins from butcher and later uses materials from the butcher shop to answer his own questions about how murder might have been committed.

Willaful: That’s a really good point. I’m not generally a fan of mystery in romance, but I was also more engaged by the mystery this time, and Wu’s deductive methods helped keep it interesting.

Sunita: I loved the ending of The Lotus Palace, but some readers found it harder to buy into. I thought the ending of The Jade Temptress worked really well and fit the characters as we have come to understand them.

Jayne: I love the quiet ending – it reminds me of The Sword Dancer. The challenge of how to resolve all the various impediments to their future life together is formidable. But Lin is a master at this and solve the roadblocks in believable ways using the strengths and talents of the people she’s created. Like Wei-Wei, I was delighted at how Mingyu destroys her adversary, how Kaifeng addresses the issue of Mingyu’s ties to the Lotus Palace, and how the two of them find their future in the end. Kaifeng is the only man she’s dealt with who wants her to be free and who doesn’t want to own her.  He wants her to be free to choose her life, and he wants her to freely choose him and not go to him because he’s her only option.

Willaful: Yes — although there’s still an element of luck in this ending, it really demonstrates the changes that have happened in them through falling in love, while allowing them to still be themselves.

Sunita: The Jade Temptress is definitely falls in the Unusual Historical category since neither the setting nor the characters are the standard European or North American. But the characters are completely accessible, in my opinion. As Jane said in a recent review of Carolyn Crane’s latest book, “it’s truly different yet not.” Grade: A.

Willaful: I appreciated how firmly we are inside this rich, interesting civilization. No one is an outsider, or outlier, or above the beliefs of the time. No one explains or excuses them. Yet it’s not at all intimidating. The language is accessible and the emotions are universal. Grade: B+

Jayne: That’s a great point about how we’re taken so deeply inside this world. I never felt lost or adrift about anything. Lin just keeps getting better and better for me and this one is a solid A.

 

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