All through my reading Burning Tigress I shook my head at this missed opportunity. Author Jade Lee is a good writer with a strong knowledge of 19th century Shanghai. When she’s describing the Chinese scolding each other and struggling with life among English people whom they detest, she is marvelous. In this fourth book in Lee’s series set in turn of the century China, the Chinese values of filial piety and duty confront the European values of individuality and romance. That confrontation works well, but, this is supposed to be a romance novel. On that score it fails, and, since so much time is taken up with what is supposed to be romance and sex, it fails to satisfy as any other kind of novel.
Charlotte Wicks, the beautiful blonde 25-year-old spinster heroine, spends her days behaving like a proper English lady and caring for her mentally retarded brother, William. Charlotte feels trapped in her role as sisterly caregiver. Her mother’s preoccupation with religion, along with her father’s constant drinking and philandering, leave William unprotected. The only person who actively helps Charlotte carry the family burdens is “First Boy” Ken Jin. Ken Jin has assumed the role of steward, secretary, and butler to the Wicks family. Quiet, strong and highly intelligent, he efficiently runs the family’s import business as well as the household. Clearly he is the real man of the house.
Charlotte is intrigued by friends’ gossip about Ken Jin’s sexual talents. One afternoon she walks in on him during an acupuncture session where he sits alone sporting a prodigious erection. Shocked but fascinated, Charlotte suddenly longs for Ken Jin to teach her all he knows about the mysteries of sex. Ken Jin, anxious to keep his job, rejects Charlotte, but when he discovers that Charlotte has possession of some priceless Chinese scrolls which hold erotic secrets, he relents in order to get them back for their Chinese owners.
Ken Jin’s backstory, which is perhaps too complicated, is enhanced with dialogue and descriptions of his Chinese family, including those of his grandmother, father, and brother. It was this picture of Ken Jin as a Chinese person with family problems that I found most intriguing. Whenever the story switched to be a conversation between Chinese people, the story perked up. The Chinese who people this book are multifaceted and clever. The Europeans, by contrast, are stereotypical bores.
Ken Jin reveals to Charlotte that he is a Dragon Master, a follower of the Taoist cult that believes that sex can be the means to visit Heaven. He has worked for many years gathering his “yang” (having sex without orgasm). Ken Jin expects his yang to bring him power and eventually bring him to “Heaven” – meaning that he will literally experience a visit to heaven during sex. In Charlotte, Ken Jin recognizes a woman of great “yin,” a woman who can eventually bring him to Heaven. Over time he encourages her to gather more yin, as this will increase her power to direct her life and help those around her.
The problem with sex as a means to rising to Heaven is this: it’s not exciting, it’s not romantic. There is a great deal of sex in this book and most of it fails to be convincing or even interesting. This sex has all the erotic thrill of a yoga session. There’s a lot of Taoist Chinese sounding jargon. Ken Jin’s “dragon” is constantly on the alert. (“His dragon thrust forward like a proud beast.”) He loses his “yang” to Charlotte’s yin. She has incredible yin, more yin than he ever knew existed. She’s a veritable yin goddess. This can get pretty confusing as when Ken Jin says: “I am stealing your yin. I am taking your power to strengthen my own.”
This kind of talk goes on. After a while I was giggling – a lot.
Jade Lee can be often be a good story teller, but she’s not a romantic one, nor is her work genuinely erotic. This book gets the grade it does because, regardless of the problems, I continued to be interested in the outcome and turned the pages willingly. Though the love scenes bored me, the Chinese characters in Burning Tigress held my attention. As the book came to a close I did not care very much about Charlotte and Ken Jin’s fate. I did care about Ken Jin and how his life would work out after he severed his ties with the Chinese community by marrying a white woman. Perhaps someday Jade Lee will find a way to write a book that is more about Chinese families. That book I will buy, but I cannot recommend this one.