>> Friday, November 22, 2013
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, yet 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?
I've heard loads of good things about Jeannie Lin's books and have picked up a few over the years. I got distracted by the shiny new one, though, so those are still in my TBR.
Lin's books have a very unique setting in romance. The Lotus Palace is set in China during the Tang Dynasty (I'll save you the googling: that's between 618 and 907 AD). The action takes place in the pleasure district of Pingkang Li, which as far as I can tell is in the ancient city of Chang'an, now Xi'an, in Shaanxi province.
That's where our heroine, Yue-ying, lives, in the famous Lotus Palace. Yue-ying is maidservant to one of the city's reigning beauties, the legendary and much-pursued courtesan Mingyu. The hero, Bai Huang, is one of Mingyu's admirers, a young scholar-wannabe from a wealthy, influential family. Yue-ying's and the reader's first impression is that he's a spoilt, privileged wastrel, his life all about drinking and gambling and throwing money around.
But there's more to Bai Huang than meets the eye, and the first indication of it is the attention he pays Yue-ying, who's completely ignored by all the other people who frequent the Lotus Palace. Used to being considered insignificant and ugly due to a birthmark on her face, Yue-ying is made very uncomfortable by his attention and professed admiration. But after the murder of a courtesan, one as high-up as Mingyu and a good friend of her, they must work together to discover what's going on before the danger reaches Mingyu.
There is a lot to like here, and I completely get why so many people whose taste I respect like Lin's books. The setting is just fabulous. Lin manages to make both the physical location and the way the society works come alive, and does it quite deftly, without any infodumps. All the very unfamiliar information comes up naturally and allows us to understand the restrictions and issues relating to characters in such different positions as Bai Huang and Yue-ying.
The characters are also very well done. There's a real depth and history to them, and they feel real. Lin shows us exactly how their experiences have both shaped and been shaped by their personalities, and all this sets up the main conflict in the romance beautifully.
And yet... I acknowledge all this, and yet, it took me ages to read the book, over 3 weeks. I don't know whether it was something about the writing, or the fact that I had very little interest in the tedious murder investigation element, but the book felt extremely draggy. It didn't flow as well as I would have hoped. It meant that I admired the book for the things it did really well much more than I actually liked it.
MY GRADE: A B-