I have been deeply fascinated with China and Chinese history ever since reading Wild Swans many years ago, and I was delighted to discover that Harlequin Blaze were publishing a historical romance set in imperial China. I found The Concubine by Jade Lee a very pleasant and unusual read.
In 1851, the young Emperor must find himself an empress and an appropriate number of lesser consorts and concubines. To achieve this, noble Manchu families from all over the countries send their nubile daughters to the Forbidden City where the most beautiful and talented will be chosen in a contest. In charge of the contest is the emperor’s boyhood friend Sun Bo Tao, one of the few men close to him who is not a eunuch.
Chen Ji Yue comes from an impoverished family of the lower ranks of aristocracy. The novel’s title is thus misleading: The heroine hopes to become part of the emperor’s harem, but she is not a concubine. She has been rigidly trained by her mother and intends to do everything in her power to attract the emperor’s notice, because this is the only way she can better her family’s fortunes and provide for her younger brothers. But then Ji Yue has a run-in with Bo Tao, and from that moment on she is both worried that he might expose her as too outspoken and not ladylike, and that the instant heat that flares up between the two of them might get her into trouble.
While Bo Tao is initially irritated with Ji Yue, he soon recognizes her spirit and intelligence, and tries to keep her away from entering the barren and boring life of an Imperial concubine. He does not act entirely from altruism, as he is quick to admit to himself, because once Ji Yue is chosen for the emperor’s harem, she will be forever lost to him.
Bo Tao and Ji Yue’s adventures are, in turn, funny, tragic, fascinating (when Chinese culture and history are explained), and delectably hot. I liked the flow of the novel very much, and found it virtually unputdownable. Although Jade Lee makes allowances for Western sensibilities, she makes use of enough of her research into Chinese history and culture to lend the novel an exotic flavor that is more interesting than the wallpaper-y fairy-tale exoticism I find in many Harlequin Presents.
Because both hero and heroine are utterly dependent on the sometimes whimsical emperor, the HEA is difficult to achieve for them (and only possible because of the unexpected actions of a third character), but because they have such great rapport, to me it was all the more satisfying.
I found The Concubine a highly enjoyable read, and in fact I would have liked to spend more time with Bo Tao and Ji Yue. If you like exotic settings but shy away from Greek billionaires and pregnant secretary mistresses, this might be the very read for you. I hope Harlequin will be encouraged to published further romances with unusual backgrounds!