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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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REVIEW:  The Trouble with Being Wicked by Emma Locke

REVIEW: The Trouble with Being Wicked by Emma Locke

Dear Ms. Locke:

I’ve been in something of an extended slump with historical romances this year – none have earned better than a B grade from me, and nothing has really held my attention and impressed me as new or fresh. I decided to branch out to new-to-me authors, but unfortunately did not find what I was looking for in The Trouble with Being Wicked.

The Trouble with Being Wicked by Emma LockeCeleste Gray arrives at the ramshackle little house she’s purchased sight unseen in the English village of Brixcombe, her very pregnant friend Elizabeth in tow. Celeste has created an elaborate fiction whereby Elizabeth is the wife of an absent sea captain (the putative purchaser of the house) and she herself is Elizabeth’s companion, Miss Smythe. In fact they are both courtesans, and Elizabeth is the mistress of a married man with whom she has a stormy, on-again, off-again relationship.

Celeste had a very unstable upbringing – her neglectful mother was a courtesan herself, and her father was absent. Her mother died unexpectedly when Celeste is 15, and she turned to the only way she knew of to make money to support herself. Now, some 18 years later, she is 33 and the toast of London – a very successful member of the demimonde. But Celeste is ready to give up that life – all the more so because she is concerned that Elizabeth is too flighty to care for her child once it’s born. Elizabeth and the child need her, so Celeste hatches the plan to give the three of them a new life.

Immediately upon arrival, the women discover that the house is really in no condition for habitation, and soon thereafter meet the seller – the Viscount Ashlin Lancester, Lord Trestin. Celeste and Ash tangle as he is immediately suspicious of the existence of the missing sea captain and horrified by the feminine assault (as he sees it) on his environs.

Ash has his own demons (and how – more on that in a bit). He is the guardian of his two younger sisters, both of whom chafe under his restrictive rule. Ash has been badly damaged by the scandal of his parents’ lives – his father was a notorious rakehell and his mother eventually shot her husband and then took her own life. Ash has decided to live his life with monk-like restraint, and hasn’t been with a woman in seven years. He has not found it that difficult to avoid the scourge of lust in his quiet village home – that is, until Celeste shows up. From then on, Ash is consumed by almost uncontrollable lust, as well as by doubts about the sort of women that Celeste and Elizabeth truly are.

So, right away, I had a couple of problems. One is the mental lusting – so much mental lusting. You have a character who is extremely buttoned-up and repressed, and you have reasons why he’s that way. Within minutes of meeting Celeste, Ash is imagining her in her bath and is appalled at his thoughts. I understand the appeal of having a character so overcome by attraction that s/he behaves and thinks in unexpected ways. (I’m actually reading another, very different book right now in which the characters are also beset with totally over-the-top attraction.) It just doesn’t usually work for me. I don’t find it realistic, or I find it hard for authors to convince me of it. It feels like an extension of what I think of as “-est” syndrome, which is rife in romance. He’s the richest, she’s the prettiest, they are the sexiest sexers who ever sexed. Maybe it comes down to too much telling and not enough showing. I would love it SO MUCH more if the hero maintained his staid disapproval of the heroine (minus the filthy thoughts) for at least a little while and slowly came to find that her charms overcame his reserve.

I think the other romance syndrome that is present here and that I don’t like is the whole “animal attraction” thing (so present in paranormals these days). I don’t find lust/attraction/love that just comes out of nowhere to be that romantic. I guess I want it to be a brain thing before it’s a loins thing. That’s not to say that I don’t ever want to read about h/hs who are attracted to each other from the get-go. But 99% of romance novels feature those, so I find myself thrilled at the 1% which don’t. And far too many of the 99% feature not just attraction but the sort of overwhelming, out-of-character, uncontrollable lust that bugged me in this book.

The larger issue for me was that the first, maybe, two-thirds of the novel – the parts that take place in Brixcombe before the action moves for a time to London – really dragged interminably for me. I can’t pinpoint quite why, but for some reason a couple of hundred pages felt like 1,000. I think I was reading the book for several weeks before I finally just made myself start to read more pages a day so I could finish the damn thing. Right around that time the book did pick up, but man, it was a slog before that.

I wanted to like both Ash and Celeste better than I did. He’s definitely been marked by the tragedies of the past and he tries hard to do right by his sisters, clueless to the fact that he is stifling them. Celeste has had a hard life and she’s also trying to do better, to help the sometimes recalcitrant Elizabeth and the baby that’s eventually born. Both noble but flawed characters, but neither ever really come to life. I thought there were missed opportunities for understanding between them. Ash has his judgments about Celeste’s past profession, but never learns the circumstances that forced her into that life. Maybe I should admire the restraint in not dragging out the angst inherent there, but dammit, I *like* my angst.

Ash really does seem to have some pretty fucked-up ideas about women and sex. His whole fear of turning into his father is turned on its head by a revelation late in the book that:

[spoiler]His mother actually cheated first; Ash’s father only started catting around in response to that. Which really didn’t quite make sense to me, since Ash’s father supposedly had a reputation for being a huge reprobate, and I started to wonder at the timeline and details of these events – how long ago had this happened, how long his father was screwing everything that moved, and why his mother killed his father, really? I mean, I guess it could still be because he was perpetually unfaithful, but given the circumstances, that seems a little hypocritical of her.[/spoiler]

The larger issue was that Ash never really dealt with the enormity of his mother’s actions, either pre- or post-revelation. Your mother committing murder-suicide is a pretty damn big deal, but Ash was more focused on the shame of his father’s sexual behavior and his own fear of falling into the same habits. He seemed to have a lot of shame regarding his sexuality and a lot of judgment towards sexually active women. While that may have been understandable (as well as historically accurate), it was still kind of icky to me.

And I know I’m picking on poor Ash at this point, but just one more thing – I felt like his characterization was kind of inconsistent. He had a pattern of being very proper and uptight (for the reasons already outlined), but occasionally, usually when Celeste would start to draw back – either out of prudence or because he’d hurt her -Ash would turn playful and teasing on her. It seemed out of character for him, to say the least, and it felt more like it was driven by the dictates of the plot (if she pulls away, he needs to be the one to bring them back together) than by his personality as it was generally presented to be.

There’s a subplot/sequel bait involving Ash’s childhood friend, who turns out to be a London friend of Celeste’s. For a friend, he is also very judgmental about the idea of Ash and Celeste getting together. Which, again, I suppose made sense from a historical-accuracy standpoint, but didn’t make me like the guy much, especially considering that he’s portrayed as something of a whore himself.

The writing was mostly competent, though I noticed a few rough spots, such as the anachronistic (I think) phrase “fallen for” (used both in the romantic sense and the being-tricked sense, in separate scenes), the hero’s definitely anachronistic use of “toxic” to describe the heroine when he’s angry at her, and the word “dawdle” used when I think “dandle” was what was meant (it involved “dawdling” a child on someone’s knee, which just didn’t sound right).

The Trouble with Being Wicked isn’t truly a bad book – it’s mostly just a bland book with a few problematic elements. For that reason, my grade is a C.

Best Regards,

Jennie

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