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?
Jayne: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-
Ooh, this sounds good. Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty books have been a bit hit or miss for me, but I really like the setting, so I keep reading them. Capturing the Silken Thief is one of my favorites by her, so I’m glad she wrote another one that deals with scholars and courtesans.
I read this over the weekend, and I was just blown away by the world-building and the characters. The mystery wasn’t so obvious to me, and it took a bit of piecing together before I figured it out. I love that this book is so polished, and going back and binging on Lin’s earlier books, I really appreciate her growth as a writer from “Butterfly Swords” through “The Lotus Palace.” She’s now on my auto-buy list. I agree with Sunita’s grade of A-. I haven’t been this satisfied with a romance in a long time.
I am a few chapters in to my first Lin book (The Sword Dancer) and really enjoying it. I’m so impressed by the historical world-building. She’s not dumping lots of information, but I feel almost as at home in her world as I do in the familiar Almackistan of Regency romance, because she integrates details so effectively. Plus, the opening action scene was brilliantly written. And the characters aren’t wealthy aristocrats (unless there’s a secret twist coming).
Thanks for this review! I am now even more glad that there are so many Lin books still to discover.
@Liz Mc2: “Almackistan!” Snort – love it. This one is an “across the tracks” romance as is “My Fair Concubine” which, despite the title isn’t set in this world of the North Hamlet. In “Sword Dancer” the hero is from a good family though he’s disappointed his father in not following in the family career path into government service as a scholar.
@cleo: I think you’ll like it; it’s certainly worth your checking out, I think. Both the scholarly side and the courtesan side are very well developed, as Jayne points out in her part of the review.
@Meg: I agree that the books are getting better and better. I really liked The Sword Dancer and I thought this one took the strengths of that book and improved upon them.
@Liz Mc2: That’s a great way to put it. I was struck by how well Lin is able to place you in this world without infodumping on the one hand or using writerly tricks on the other. She is able to convey the way social distance and personal intimacy can coexist in a relationship amazingly well. That’s something we see in older books but rarely in contemporary genre or general fiction.
I’ve been really looking forward to reading this, and it sounds as if it will be another book I’ll love from Jeannie Lin. I agree so absolutely on how well she draws us into the world of her books. Liz Mc2 is exactly right, and in fact, I would say I feel much more immersed in the world than in any Regency, which is a period that has been worn out for me, although there are so many amazing writers working in it that I do continue to revisit it again and again. Jeannie Lin’s settings just come alive for me.
So for setting alone, Jeannie’s books are always beautiful reads, but I love also the way she deals with these struggles between love and honor, class, society. I love that both heroes and heroines really try hard, for themselves and each other. (No jerks, but genuine struggles.)
Jayne started me reading her, in fact, with her review of Silken Thief. Thanks, Jayne!
@Laura Florand: Me too – I also read the Silken Thief, my first Lin, because of Jayne’s review.
@Jayne: That could’ve gotten certain sons disowned.
I watch a lot of historical K-dramas, and they also feature those exams for certain characters. The way they were graded is rather mind-boggling. I’m not sure how similar they’re to the ones done in Tang, though I imagine they were somewhat similar since Korea’s last dynasty adopted a lot of Chinese culture and customs.
@Jayne: I can’t take credit for “Almackistan”–I think maybe Maili invented it?
I’ve been thinking about why the world-building works so well for me. I think it is that Lin, like really good speculative fiction (and, indeed, any) authors, trusts her readers. She doesn’t over-explain but assumes we can figure things out from context. Like when the hero comments that the heroine hasn’t been schooled to conceal her emotions, I understand that he has and that that might be important in this culture (and also I get another perspective on the old “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype). And she trusts readers to be patient with–and even enjoy–some obscurity at the beginning as the details of the world unfold. I really like the anticipation of growing understanding as I read.
Also, agree with Laura and Sunita that the way cultural expectations/norms/hierarchies constrain the characters is really interesting. Too many historicals just ignore those things or create characters who easily go against those expectations with no real repercussions.
@Liz Mc2: Maili and I came up with Almackistan and Ochlassieland on Twitter one day. I *think* Almackistan was mine and Ochlassieland was hers, but don’t hold me to it.
Is this book a good Lin to start with or would you recommend another?
@Kaetrin: I think it’s a great place to start if you want to try a full length book. If you want a taste of what her writing has to offer without reading a book then I’d suggest trying the novella “Capturing the Silken Thief.” It’s set in this North Hamlet pleasure area (though it’s not a prequel to this book).
Here’s a link to all the Lin books/novellas we’ve reviewed here.
Thx Jayne. I went to Amazon and it said this one isn’t out til October? I’ve wishlisted it for now. :)
@Kaetrin: Interesting. The eHarlequin website has it listed on sale Sept 1st.
@Jayne: @Kaetrin: Oh, bummer! Maybe it’s a regional thing? It’s for sale at Amazon US right now.