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Tang Dynasty

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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DUAL REVIEW:  The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

DUAL REVIEW: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

 

It is a time of celebration in the Pingkang li, where imperial scholars and bureaucrats mingle with beautiful courtesans. At the center is the Lotus Palace, home of the most exquisite courtesans in China…

Maidservant Yue-ying is not one of those beauties. Street-smart and practical, she’s content to live in the shadow of her infamous mistress—until she meets the aristocratic playboy Bai Huang.

Bai Huang lives in a privileged world Yue-ying can barely imagine, let alone share, but as they are thrown together in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery, they both start to dream of a different life. Yet Bai Huang’s position means that all she could ever be to him is his concubine— will she sacrifice her pride to follow her heart?

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie LinJayne:I don’t think we’ve ever dual reviewed a Lin novel and I was eager to see what you thought of her latest one. “The Lotus Palace” is almost two books in one. It’s a love story between two people of vastly differing social backgrounds as well as a murder mystery. The romance worked fairly well for me but the mystery didn’t grab my attention as much as I might have wished.

Sunita: I really enjoyed your review of her previous book, The Sword Dancer, so it’s great to do this one together! I agree that the mystery wasn’t particularly unusual, and by the end I didn’t really care whodunit, but the setting and the romance were so appealing to me, especially as events unfolded in the second half, that I was really caught up in the different aspects of the book.

Jayne: One thing I can always count on when reading her work is that I will almost effortlessly learn a lot. Details, large and small, are seamlessly woven into the narrative and I never feel as if I’m being force fed every little thing she learned during her research. Recently I read something on the BBC website about the difficulty of the exams Chinese scholars who sought government positions had to face. In the struggles of Bai Huang, I can see this come to life. 20+ years later, I still remember the grueling study schedules my accounting major sorority sisters set for themselves in order to pass the CPA exam but I don’t think they had anything on what Bai Huang endures – for the fourth time. It’s too bad that women couldn’t have taken it as his sister Wei-Wei looks like she would have aced the test the first go round.

Sunita: Wei-Wei is a terrific character; she starts out as the stereotypical cute younger sister but you realize quickly what Bai Huang knows, that she is very smart and very focused. She accepts that she can’t be a scholar the way a man can, but she still manages to use her talents.

The setting is so richly realized, even more so than in The Sword Dancer, whose worldbuilding I thought was excellent. I agree that there is no sense of infodumping, just the careful evocation of a community and its geographical and political context. Because of that, the first half of the book was a bit slow-moving for me. We learn about the Pinkang li, the quarter where the courtesans live, and we get to know the inhabitants and customers of the Lotus Palace. What I like about this approach is that by the time the romance really gets going, we know Yue-ying and Bai Huang as individuals, so we’re rooting for a happy ending because they really fit together, not because they are each the other’s designated Beloved Object.

Jayne:The Historical Undone novella “Capturing the Silken Thief” introduced me to the world of Tang Dynasty courtesans and the people who worked with them. “The Lotus Palace” takes this many steps further and is a full-on immersion into this environment. Yue-ying lives in the background of this pleasure palace. She and her mistress Mingyu were sold into this life and share a bond no outsider understands. Yue-ying knows how lucky she is to have been redeemed from being a common prostitute in a brothel even if her marked face disqualifies her from the heights that Mingyu has reached.

I enjoyed reading about Yue-ying. She’s practical, hardworking and doesn’t stand for any nonsense from Bai Huang. She serves as his introduction to the world of these servant girls and teaches him some respect for those who aren’t rich and privileged. This is actually my favorite aspect of the book. An experience in Bai Huang’s past has already stripped away the veneer of the beautiful illusion the courtesans project but meeting Yue-ying makes him truly see the harsh reality behind the glitter.

Sunita: Yue-ying is a terrific character. She’s been dealt a very tough hand, but she’s neither downtrodden nor feisty. She accepts the world as it has been made for her and she appreciates the good things in her life. Her relationship with Mingyu (who is another nuanced, interesting character) is clearly more than just courtesan-servant, but we don’t find out precisely what it is until the second half of the book. Yue-ying is understandably unromantic, but she’s also loving and interested in the world around her.

Jayne: One thing I loved was Yue-ying’s visits to the local temple including stopping to see an ancient (I assume) sea turtle who lives there.

Sunita: I did too, and it’s typical of Lin’s approach that was seems like a trivial interlude featuring the turtle turns out to be important, both in showing us a side of Yue-ying and to the plot. As for our hero, Bai Huang is clearly more than he at first appears, but I wasn’t sure exactly how he would turn out. In the second half of the book I realized that he fit a common historical romance archetype: the under-achieving aristocratic eldest son who has failed to live up to expectations but wants to do better. But he wasn’t predictable in this story because his background and context meant that his family interactions, his parents’ expectations, and his own choices were identifiably Chinese, not British or even generically Western. It’s a great example of how a little-used cultural context provides a palette of character motivations and actions that is the same in some ways and very different in others.

Jayne: Still, he’s a bit of the romantic in their growing relationship. She has to bring him back down to earth. It felt realistic that to her, sex would be devoid of emotion while he would get wrapped up the hearts and rainbows. And while her feelings changed more quickly than might be reasonable, I appreciate that Lin didn’t have one good sexual experience “cure” her. It took two. Oh, well.

Sunita: Those are really great points. The “bad sex” scene has the shape of other bad sex scenes in romance novels, but the particulars are all about these two characters. I admit I was also surprised at the relatively rapid transition, but by genre standards I suppose it’s not that fast.

Jayne: The roadblocks on the way to their HEA are formidable. He is of a renowned family of wealth and means. She is the daughter of a poor farmer who sold her. His family has already arranged a marriage for him and she resists becoming his concubine because she’s already been owned in the past and, now that she’s free, she’ll never submit to that again. As it got closer to the end of the book, I was biting my nails as I wondered how Lin would get them past this impossible impasse. A clever woman – yah! – saves the day. I hope she will get her own wonderful hero at some point.

Sunita: I honestly did not know how Lin was going to get this couple to an HEA. She laid the groundwork for why Yue-ying didn’t want to be a concubine so well that I launch into my usual “Oh, just go ahead, you’ll be set for life” lecture. Yes, there was a way to be a content woman as a concubine, but Yue-ying wasn’t going to be able to manage it, and neither would Bai Huang be able to play his part. And given that both she and Bai Huang knew that he wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t fulfill his family obligations, I didn’t see a way out. But there was, it was completely believable and, in retrospect, it was obvious.

Jayne: Yes, very obvious but very realistic and nothing that made me roll my eyes and think,”Oh, just go with it, Jayne!” As much as I enjoyed the romance though, the mystery didn’t work so well for me. It just didn’t make sense to me that Mingyu and Huilan, who had both been in this world of owned women for years, would have banded together over this one incident out of what surely must have been a similar background shared by many of these courtesans and prostitutes. The nitty gritty of solving the case didn’t differ from many mysteries I’ve already read and wasn’t as interesting to me as learning more about the Tang Dynasty.

Sunita: I don’t disagree with you at all on this, but I nevertheless went along with it. I didn’t have much of a sense of Huilan, but I felt that Mingyu had more intense emotions than she expressed, so her sudden decision seemed somewhat plausible. And while the procedural aspect was pretty standard, I liked the character of Constable Wu a great deal, especially his interactions with Yue-ying.

Jayne: The romance between a down-to-earth heroine and a more starry eyed hero “made” this book for me. The “how would she manage to get them together and solve the realistic conflict she’s set up” dilemma kept me glued to the story. The murder mystery – eh, not so much. I hope Wei-Wei will show up again in a future book and that we’ll see more of Yue-ying managing to keep Huang anchored and steady. B-

Sunita: I think that there are definitely readers who have similar reactions to yours, and I think you make a good argument for them. Nevertheless, when the romance started to really take off, and Yue-ying and Bai Huang had to balance their happiness at being together with the uncertainty of how they could have a future, I fell completely in love with this book. I think it’s in part because I deeply appreciated the way the context and the language reflected a more formal, hierarchical society while still showing the way romantic and familial love shaped people’s motivations and actions. It felt utterly authentic to me, and I don’t have that reaction very often. The way Lin took traditional romance archetypes and storylines and embedded them in an unfamiliar (for romance) context impressed me a lot. That’s probably why I find this to be her best book yet, and I expect that she will get even better. A-

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