Desert Isle Keeper
My Beautiful Enemy
When one reads a lot and in a specific genre, after a while, there is seems to be a sameness about books that makes one almost indistinguishable from another. So when I picked up Sherry Thomas’ My Beautiful Enemy, I immediately knew this book was out of the ordinary. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Edith Wharton. That premise seems an unlikely combination for a winner, but in this case it absolutely works.
Ying-ying is the product of a liaison between an English gentleman and a Chinese courtesan. Her father died before she was born and her mother became the favorite concubine of a highly placed man in the Imperial Chinese court named Da-ren. Given the circumstances of her birth and her mixed heritage, Ying-ying’s prospects in the tightly woven Chinese culture were pretty dim. A British tutor taught her languages. Her Amah instructed her in the martial arts to give her an advantage in a world where women had few choices and Ying-ying is a master at her craft. She might have no prospects for a decent marriage, but she could be of use to the stepfather she revered. Ying-ying became a spy for her stepfather to help him navigate the very murky waters of the geo-political minefield that was the Far East in the latter part of the 19th century. She entered the “Great Game” and the players in this book are China, Russia and Great Britain. While on a mission for her stepfather in Chinese Turkestan, she encounters a “Persian” in the courtyard of an oasis.
Captain Leighton Atwood is no Persian, but a British intelligence officer spying in Chinese Turkestan. The road he traveled to get to this particular point in his life was somewhat convoluted. His father was a homosexual with a deep abiding love for his partner, but that partner had to flee to China and when Leighton was little more than a boy, he made the treacherous journey to China to visit a man he considered a great friend and second father. Unfortunately, this friend died before Leighton could see him, but the trip to China changed him. Leighton became a master linguist and entered into the military as a prime candidate to engage in the Great Game. Based in India, he travels throughout the east gathering intelligence for England. While eating at an oasis in Chinese Turkestan, he encounters a bold and brash Kazakh who he quickly surmises is a young woman. Intrigued, he suggests they travel together for both safety and companionship. Throughout their travels, neither reveals their name to the other, but a connection is still forged. When Leighton rescues Ying-ying from a band of bandits and nurses her back to health, the inevitable happens.
While I do not want to give away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that two spies for different countries are not always a great mix and Ying-ying discovers her Persian is not who she thinks he is. She feels betrayed and poisons Leighton. Fast forward eight years and Ying-ying is now Catherine Blade, traveling to England on a mission for her stepfather. After her arch nemesis Lin surfaces on the steam ship she is traveling on and attacks a fellow passenger named Mrs. Chase, fate intervenes. Catherine saves her life and comes under the protection of both Mrs. Chase and her friend Mrs. Reynolds. When they arrive in England, Catherine is shocked to find that the man she loved and the man she thought she killed is very much alive and engaged to Mrs. Chase’s daughter.
The story of Leighton and Catherine is told by alternating between the present day of 1891 and their initial meeting in 1883. Catherine was a tough nut to crack. She is very much Chinese in her outlook on life and holds her secrets and her feelings close to the vest. A crass and prickly exterior hides the heart of a great and honorable warrior and Thomas uses a deft hand to slowly peel back the layers Catherine cloaks herself in to discover the gem at the center. Leighton will probably make future lists of “best hero in a romance novel” – his character is that good. His honor and strength are subtle and not in your face, but as the reader gets to know this extraordinary character his innate goodness slowly seeps into your psyche and forges a permanent place in your heart. Thomas did not develop one major character to the detriment of another. She has created two strong, fully developed, and complicated individuals and that is the greatest strength of this book.
In addition, the setting is also a contender for strongest element as Thomas takes us on a tour of late 19th-century China and its western provinces. The descriptions are so lush and tangible the reader almost feels they are experiencing the landscape as a secondary character. The insight given into the East Asian mindset feels authentic and makes what some might consider an implausible series of coincidences feel not just plausible, but meant to be. Can you tell I loved this book!
There is very little to criticize in Sherry Thomas’ My Beautiful Enemy. My only quibble has to do with the development of Leighton’s fiancé Miss Chase. An event late in the book concerning this character seems to come out of nowhere and almost felt like an afterthought by the author. At 307 pages, this book is relatively short and I wish that Ms. Thomas had added a few more pages to delve into the character of Annabel Chase just a little more. Sherry Thomas could have added 200 more pages to this book and I would have kept reading well into the night for a chance to spend a few more hours with this delicious couple. Now I just have to get the kindle version of this book so I can take it with me wherever I go.