My Fair Concubine
My Fair Concubine – as the title might suggest – is a Tang Dynasty take on My Fair Lady. The heroine is a tea shop girl, and the hero talks her into impersonating his sister – who is supposed to be a peace bride, a gift to a warrior in a distant province, but has run away with her lover. I found it to be a fun and unusual twist on a classic romance theme.
Yan Ling has worked as a servant at a small, provincial tea house for as long as she can remember. Abandoned by her mother, she has few skills beyond serving tea and cleaning up afterward. She meets Fei Long when he comes to retrieve his errant sister. Fei Long is too tender-hearted to kill his sister’s lover, so he lets them go, then sulks in the tea house all evening. He insults Yan Ling by telling her he needs a woman – and even she will do. She replies by tossing tea at him, an action which lands her out on the street. When she swallows her pride and begs for mercy, he has an inspiration: He needs a “princess” to travel to distant Khitan, and Yan Ling has no one. Since no one really knows what his sister looks like, Yan Ling can be his princess.
He takes Yan Ling to his wealthy home in Changan and begins instructing her in the art of calligraphy. He also hires his friend Bai Shen, an actor, to teach her to act like a noble lady. Yan Ling is a quick student, but there’s a lot to learn. She must impress imperial officials and fool them into believing she’s a lady from a noble family with a genteel upbringing. Each day she looks forward to her writing lesson. Fei Long has high expectations, and Yan Ling is anxious to meet them. They also take a sojourn out into the city so Yan Ling – disguised as a man – can see Bai Shen perform in one of his plays.
Of course – of course – they fall in love. This is romance, and it’s also My Fair Lady. But more than the obvious class differences keep them apart. Fei Long discovers that his recently deceased father left behind a mountain of debt that he must repay. Figuring out how to do it while maintaining the family honor is a major undertaking. There is also the matter of Yan Ling’s future. She’s already promised – sort of – to the Khitan chieftain. Can they give into their attraction with so much at stake?
I couldn’t help liking this Tang Dynasty My Fair Lady. Everything seems new in such an exotic environment, and Lin paints a vivid picture of the time and place. There’s no danger of mistaking this for a wallpaper Regency. The research and the detail are evident, but it never feels like a dry history lesson.
I liked Yan Ling and Fei Long as well. Their conflict is very believable, and that makes them believable. Fei Long has the upper hand as far as class goes, but Yan Ling is no mealy mouthed fragile flower. She’s not afraid to tell him what she thinks about anything, nor is she afraid to ask for what she wants. I also appreciated that Fei Long doesn’t take advantage of his wealth and influence; he’s humble, and he treats Yan Ling with the respect she deserves.
The secondary characters add a lot of color to the story. The aforementioned Bai Shen (the actor) is a welcome addition, as is Dao, a servant of the family. Both of them have parts in furthering the romance between the principals, and both are well-drawn for a short book.
The only issue I really had with the book is that initially, it was hard to get into. It took me well over a week to read the first half – not because I was bored, really, but because it was a little too easy to put down. Once I hit the middle, I became much more interested. Fei Long’s debt problems are revealed, the conflict heats up, and the stakes are higher. Consequently, I flew through the last half of the book in a matter of hours.
In the scheme of things, the pacing issue is not a big deal. I can heartily recommend My Fair Concubine, particularly if you enjoy unusual settings.