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REVIEW:  Blood Royal by Diana Norman

REVIEW: Blood Royal by Diana Norman

Blood-Royal1

Forced by Sir Robert Walpole into a distasteful marriage and then ruined by her husband’s speculation in the South Sea Bubble, Lady Cecily Fitzhenry vows revenge on the Prime Minister and all his myrmidons – including the creaking Hanoverian court and an obscure Scottish lawyer, Archibald Cameron.Nothing if not spirited, Lady Cecily turns her hand to highway robbery and spying while transforming her sole remaining asset, an old tavern on the Great North Road, into a great coaching inn…and eventually Lady Cecily salvages her country and herself in ways she had never imagined…

Dear Readers,

I’m slowly working my way through the remaining Diana Norman books I have unread. The key word here is slowly as I don’t want to run out of them too soon. When I checked at Kobo last year to see if any of her older books had been released in eformat, I was honestly not expecting any but the newer ones and her Ariana Franklin books to be available. Imagine my Snoopy-Happy-Dancing surprise when I saw “Blood Royal” and “The Vizard Mask” listed and then noticed the very reasonable price. I was as exuberant as a litter of Golden Retriever puppies chasing a tennis ball. Now which one to read. Since Jennie had already done a short write up of “Mask,” “Blood Royal” it was.

Our heroine, Lady Cecily, is a distant descendant of the characters in “The Morning Gift” though you certainly don’t have to read that one first as it’s a medieval and this is a Georgian. Or should I say Jacobean, depending on which way your politics of the day swayed? First thing I’ll say about Lady Cecily is she’ll drive you crazy at times.

Cecily is a mix of Makepeace Hedley and Diana, Lady Stacpoole. As with Makepeace, she is plunged to the lowest level of financial desperation when she loses almost everything to her elderly husband’s speculation with her money in the South Sea Bubble. As with Diana, she undergoes a sea change in attitude towards the underclass/working class with whom she suddenly has to live and work. Liberty is at stake as well as the fate of a nation.

Cecily is also a snob. She is of the class for whom idleness is an art and emotion a dirty word. Her nose can be higher in the air than a giraffe and heaven help anyone she thinks pities her forced marriage to a parvenu and her enforced kinship with an unfortunate sister in law. She’s also fixated on a young man she met years ago and blinded to the attributes of a man who has loved her and put up with her for years. She can be a mess.

Just to rehash so it’s completely understood, Cecily is not an immediately likable person at times. In fact, a lot of times. She has a blood line that goes back to the Norman Invasion – and the pride of it that goes with that – a fortune and a fair face. Her whole life, she’s had it all and she doesn’t take well to losing society’s regard with her forced marriage to a jumped up tradesman and ultimately the total loss of her place when they lose it all. But Cecily’s got guts, gumption and a practical nature she never dreamed she had. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Maybe her blood does account for something as she displays determination in spades.

Cecily’s saving grace is the fact that her education under the care of Mary Astell has allowed her to view the lower classes with less disdain than the usual aristocrat. It’s not that Cecily is all hail-bumpkin-well-met, remember she’s got an abundance of snobbery, but that she’s seen them as human beings in the past and learns to do so again.

But Cecily also learns from what happens to her. She’s been down and out and remembers that when faced with people in need. She initially justifies her turn on the pad by seeing her loathed enemy Sir Robert Walpole in everyone she robs only to realize that these are people from whom she might be taking their last hope, the final possessions they own. In the chained, escaped slave “Quick” she sees a man in a country that would deem him merely chattel. In the Packer brothers, she discovers the working class who will tirelessly try to help those they feel respect them as human beings. Oh, yes, Cecily learns and in doing so becomes a complete and better person.

Another thing I love about Norman’s books is how the working class are portrayed. They aren’t ‘tug your forelock, just happy to serve their betters’ people. They are real and are shown as people with depth, concerns and issues. Sometimes they’re good and at other times might not always have paid the tax on that imported brandy from France but I can’t help but enjoy reading about them.

The law and respect for it against the tyranny it can help curb, is woven through the story as with so many of Norman/Franklin’s books. Cecily sees it being used as a bludgeon on the people of England by Walpole and his cronies but it’s Archibald Cameron, a barrister from Scotland, who begins to teach her that it can also reign in the power of those who would crush others for their own gain. English Common Law – you gotta love it.

When a slaver threatens two people dear to Cecily, Archibald and the people of her inn, we get a glimpse of the plight of most of the black people of England who are not viewed as anything but chattel. I was literally holding my breath and reading each page as fast as I could until they were momentarily saved. In Archie’s rousing in court defense of one of them, we see their fight for justice that wouldn’t ultimately arrive until 1830.

It’s during his arguments to save Quick that I saw two things. One – a literary view of “Garrow’s Law” and Two – Lady Cecily finally falling in love with her now husband, Archie. I love that it’s his intelligence and skill as a barrister she finds sexy. His declaration of love is pretty good too.

He looked up. ‘You want me to say it? I’ll say it. If the hosts of hell were swarming ashore, I’d still have plucked ye from the arms of the Devil himself.’

Sigh.

How does Cecily save her nation? Well, in a way that would make her ancestors proud. She might not swing a sword but as she says, a 40 pound weight dropped from 100 feet does have an impact. Sorry, but you just have to read how she does it.

I hope this review will encourage people to try Norman/Franklin’s books and that will encourage her estate to release her other hard to find out-of-print books. It might start a little slowly and brushing up on the 1716 Jacobean uprising and the South Sea Bubble won’t hurt but it builds to a crescendo and is well worth the effort. B+

~Jayne

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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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