JOINT REVIEW: Red Blossom in Snow by Jeannie Lin
Murder and forbidden love in the Tang Dynasty. The latest in the bestselling Lotus Palace Mystery series.
Magistrate Li Chen harbors a secret. One that could destroy his hard-earned reputation, as well as his growing passion for the talented courtesan, Song Yi.
Li Chen’s duty to his family and the Emperor must come before the desires of his heart, but when a stranger to the city is found dead near the House of Heavenly Peaches, where Song Yi is indentured, the complicated nature of their relationship becomes the least of his troubles.
For Song Yi, Magistrate Li’s gentlemanly, late night conversations provide a welcome change from the games of courtship she is accustomed to, but his reserved attention won’t pay the bills. When one of her courtesan-sisters goes missing at the same time a stranger is killed in the pleasure quarter, she and Li Chen embark on an investigation as well as a passionate affair. But the riddle they uncover goes deeper than they could have imagined, and mysteries from their pasts may shatter any hope for the future.
Jayne: Firstly, wow. What a gorgeous cover. I know it was a lot of work to arrange it but it is fabulous.
Song Yi is a courtesan at the House of Heavenly Peaches. Li Chen is a (very) young magistrate for half of the Imperial city of Changan. We’ve seen them together previously. Though they have helped solve a mystery and Li Chen often pays for an hour of Song Yi’s time (talk and drinking wine only to Song Yi’s young courtesan-in-training Sparrow’s disbelief), they are both aware that there is little possibility of anything more. Song Yi might claim to be from an important family that fell on hard times but she’s still a courtesan and would never be accepted as a bride for the only son of the Li family.
When a murder takes place near her house and one of her fellow courtesans goes missing, Song Yi realizes that Li Chen will not be fooled by the lies that the other women of the house have told him and insists on giving him the truth. The damage though, is already done and to avoid conflicts of interest (as his interest in her is well known) Chen hands over the investigation to his counterpart in the other half of the city. A lot of people are asking questions but no answers are being found. The murder, the disappearance of another of Song Yi’s fellow courtesans, and several old family secrets bring the two together in ways they never expected.
Yay we’re back in Tang Dynasty China among the pleasure houses of Pingkang li and magisterial offices of those who try to uphold the law. There are mysteries, past and present, to be solved in this book but a lot of the action is devoted to the relationship between Song Yi and Li Chen. As mentioned, they’ve been in previous books, most recently “The Hidden Moon,” and have “history.” Li Chen is the slightly stuffed-shirt magistrate who, despite having a lot of responsibility, has little actual power. He’s attracted to Song Yi, finds her easy to talk to, enjoys her company but knows that as much as he might wish for more, he’s probably not going to get it. Song Yi is easy to talk to but that’s because she’s been trained to be so. Her job is to let men imagine a romantic relationship with her, smile, and smooth the conversation until the night is over.
Janine: I liked Song Yi a lot. She was a practical woman but at the same time not so pragmatic that she couldn’t feel yearning and (despite herself) wish there could be more to her relationship with Chen. She had elegance, refinement, and had accepted every part of her job (though early on, she bows out of an arrangement early because Chen is on her mind). She wasn’t beautiful but she was lovely, if that makes sense–able to smooth over uncomfortable moments and act gently even in moments when she herself was disturbed by something. She had some foresight, too, and thought about how to take care of her “sisters” (fellow courtesans) and “mother” (the procuress). She had truly made the House of Heavenly Peaches her home and felt only protectiveness of them. I didn’t dislike Li Chen, but he also didn’t mesmerize me in any way. He had a lot of integrity, honesty, and was dedicated to righting wrongs, all admirable qualities, but his stodginess took some possible luster away (I often have this reaction to stuffed shirt heroes).
Jayne: I actually really liked that Song Yi is initially described as not the most beautiful or sought after courtesan. She thinks that those who are the most desirable are the ones who end up having problems.
Janine: Yes, that was nice. When I was halfway through the book, I observed to you that one thing I love about this author’s romances is that her characters often fit together like puzzle pieces, and I’m unable to imagine one without feeling and understanding their yearning for the other, but in this book, while I could understand why Chen felt so drawn to Song Yi (her kindness, her mystery, and the fact that they were from the same area all called to his honest, true and lonely soul), it was harder for me to see why Song Yi would feel so drawn to him. “I kind of feel like, why him? I get that he’s sincere and honorable but why is she drawn to those qualities above all?” By the end of the book this question was answered, and answered very well. But it took quite a while to get there, and I spent all that time not entirely connecting with Song Yi’s attraction to him.
What did you think of them, Jayne, either individually or as a couple?
Jayne: I liked them individually. But to be honest, as Chen had been portrayed as a bit stodgy and bland in “Hidden Moon” and as the suitor who Wei-Wei didn’t want, it took a while for me to accept his shift here to hero status. Song Yi was also more in the background of “Hidden Moon” so initially I didn’t have strong feelings about her either. They’re both honorable people who think of others above themselves. I wonder if having them be so similar worked as well as the stories of the other MCs in this series where most were more opposites.
Janine: That’s a great point.
Jayne: There are two main threads in this novel and for a while, I wasn’t sure when or if they were going to intertwine. Due to take a road trip home to honor his father’s memory on the anniversary of his death, Song Yi’s house mother finagles him into taking Song Yi and Sparrow along as Song Yi and Li Chen hail from the same area. I enjoyed the slow journey, the shift in Song Yi and Li Chen’s relationship to a physical one and how this is shown breaking down the remaining barriers they’ve up until now kept between them.
I loved all the details about life in Changan, road trips home, and how fate and lives can be changed via winding trails of events.
Janine: I really liked the details you mention about Changan. The Pingkang Li a world I am always happy to visit again–Lin manages to sustain a balance of the gritty and the glamorous. We see the grace and beauty of the courtesans, their refinement and elegance, but also day-to-day life outside the pleasure houses (teahouses and pawnshops) and the occasionally grittier and tougher streets, where a body might be dumped, as happens early in this book. It’s a little world in itself, and I also love some of the historical details Lin brings in, like the gates that closed for the night–if you left the quarter you had to have a pass, and you couldn’t return until morning. I always feel transported when I read her books.
The middle slowed down for me. I hoped for a bit more from the road trip in terms of scene setting–I would have loved a little more detail about the inns they stayed at, a minor character they met along the journey or a little research detail. I wanted more worldbuilding in this middle part of the book. When they reached their destination, though, we got that again and I became more engaged.
Jayne: Yeah, I agree. This section did read as slower to me, too.
Janine: An even bigger issue prior to that was that for 24% of the book (roughly corresponding with the second quarter) no new clues were brought to light. I gather you picked up on some stuff that I didn’t (I’m trying to be vague) but that part of the book didn’t involve the characters putting together clues and investigating them in such a way that each one led to the next. These books are billed as mysteries now, and the mystery in the last book (The Hidden Moon) was so intricately plotted and well-executed that my expectations for this one were perhaps too high. I didn’t actually want a lot of mystery-solving (I love that this series is so romance heavy), but I wanted what there was to be more evenly distributed. Without that the section of the book I am discussing (from 30% to 54%) felt slow to me and then the ending was had to be rushed and choppy to make up for it.
With that said, the ending was strong. I wasn’t expecting the way the plot unfolded at all.
Jayne: There were a lot of clues laid out and allusions made to past events in the slower part but as the reader is still in the dark about many things, it’s not as obvious. You have to trust that all this stuff you’re being told is eventually going to mean something. It took a lot of exposition from a lot of different characters to explain how all of that tied in with all of this and led to what had been done. There’s a whole lot of explanation that is needed to wrap everything up. And then as the page count wound down, I wondered if this would result in an ending like in some of the bittersweet Chinese narratives where lovers part. Spoiler/not a spoiler – it didn’t but I finished the book with a subdued feeling rather than a joyous one. The ending seemed a bit rushed and sober instead of “Yay, they’re together!”
Janine: I actually liked some of that.
Some loose ends were left untied, which I think I’ll be okay with as long as they get picked up again in a later book. There was also a secondary character I very much wanted a happy ending for but I have some doubts about whether we’ll get it.
What grade are you giving Red Blossom in Snow, Jayne? It’s a B- for me.
Jayne: It’s a B- for me as well.