Jeannie Lin's debut novel, Butterfly Swords. Despite the fact that I was really excited about it. Despite the fact that I have the darn thing loaded on my e-reader as I type this. I tend to suck like that.
However, this bit of slacking on my part (story of my life!), did not deter me from reading her second book, The Dragon And The Pearl - a follow-up to Butterfly Swords. The good news is that this book stands alone very well. The bad news? I really wanted to love it, and that didn't quite happen.
Ling Suyin is the former Emperor's consort. Her beauty is legendary, with her name being known far and wide - however that notoriety offers little protection. When the Emperor dies, she flees to a small home by the river, which is where the feared warlord, Li Tao, finds her. She thinks he's her executioner. While Li Tao does show up on her doorstep with abduction in mind, it is with the goal of protecting her. He's gotten word that she is in danger, and that it would be in his best interests to make sure no harm comes to her.
This story is set in 8th century China, a time period that I would wager more than a few romance readers aren't terribly familiar with. The author excels at painting her back-drop, and evoking a setting that even the most unfamiliar of readers will feel "at home" in. This is a very uncertain time period in Chinese history, with civil unrest looming, and the threat of war on the horizon. Li Tao wants to keep the peace, but his way of doing so is seen as treasonous by the Emperor. These uncertain times lead to characters who aren't immediately transparent to each other. Frankly, secrets were a means of staying alive, as well as getting yourself killed. Naturally both hero and heroine have their secrets, and trust is not an easy commodity to come by. Trusting the wrong person could very well get you killed.
For this reason, this story works better for me as "historical fiction" more so than "historical romance." I understood why these characters kept secrets from each other. I understood why they weren't totally honest and open with each other for a long stretch of time - but that said, I still have that niggle in the back of my brain. That niggle that says, "Will they ever totally trust each other?" That's how uncertain the historical back-drop of the story left me, and how well the author paints the obstacles that these two people will have to overcome. Those niggling doubts over the trust issue ultimately left me wondering, "Yeah, but do they truly love each other?" Sure there's passion and the sex is hot - but is that enough?
The story hums along at a leisurely clip until the ending, which seemed rather rushed to me. The author literally has a lot to wrap up, and some of the developments later on in the story made my head swim. There's also the small matter that I'm not sure how "resolved" the conflict truly is. For readers who like everything neat, tidy, puppy dogs and rainbows at the end? You're not going to get that with this book. You just aren't. The time period is too unsettled. So unless the author were to completely throw out the historical baby with the historical bath water? This couple isn't skipping off into the bamboo forest together holding hands while happy pandas dance around them. Does it end "happily?" Yes. Our couple is together. But will there continue to be obstacles on the horizon? Most assuredly.
This all being said, this is a well-written and well-told story. I fell right into it. Even with being as unfamiliar as I am with this era of Chinese history, the author does an excellent job of evoking the setting, while avoiding spoon-feeding or info-dumping. The love scenes are well-done, and the author (thank the good Lord!) avoids the laughable purple prose that I've seen crop up in other books featuring Asian characters (in other words, no "jade stalk"). I liked that Ling was, in some respects, a jaded personality - given as she spent much of her young life surviving palace intrigue. I also liked how Li Tao was this mix of villain and hero - stuck with navigating a political nightmare while keeping those around him safe. Falling in love with Ling brings more complications, even if he doesn't want to admit, at first, that what he feels for her is love.
I'm torn when it comes to grading this book. I'm going to slap it with a C, given my reservations about the romance and the rushed ending. But if I'm honest, which I usually am, this wasn't an average C read for me. It's better than that, but not enough for me to entirely overlook those issues I did have. Certainly it's always up to the review reader to decide, but my gut tells me that if you're looking for a "different" historical? This one isn't a bad way to go.
Final Grade = C+
Sidenote: Kudos to the Harlequin art department. A cover that actually "fits" the story, right down to the tattoo.