I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Jeannie Lin’s historical novels set during the Tang Dynasty in China. This is often considered a golden era of Chinese culture and that is beautifully captured in these novels, from the intricacies of the scholar system to the delicacies of the tea ritual. In this latest offering we return to The Lotus Palace, a high end brothel located in Chang'an, the Imperial capital.
Mingyu is one of the legendary beauties of the Pingkang Li, the entertainment district of the capital. She is well trained in the arts of the courtesans and much in demand. While many might think her expertise lies only in seduction it is actually for her skills as a hostess that Mingyu is renowned. To sit in one of her afternoon teas, to converse with other scholar-gentlemen anxious to impress the beautiful courtesan, this is a highpoint of civilized society for many. For most, in fact, it is enough. But not for the general who is her most highly ranked and wealthiest patron. Mingyu has avoided becoming his concubine but when he calls, she must go. It is when she arrives at his secondary dwelling in the city that she encounters violent death once more. The general has been beheaded and in her panic she turns to the one man in the city whom she trusts implicitly – even if that faith is not returned .
All know the beautiful and talented courtesan but Constable Wu Kaifeng’s encounters with her are often less than pleasant. He had recently arrested her for a murder she had opportunity to commit. She had been cleared of that crime but now she stands over a dead body once more, the body of a man whose place in the political and financial ranks of the capital make it imperative that justice be done swiftly. Constable Wu has no desire to drag Mingyu into this but he also has no option – as the first on the scene it is possible that she either saw something that would lead them to the killer or participated in the crime herself. But spending time with this lovely woman puts something other than his career or life in jeopardy; it puts his heart and soul into her delicate hands.
The great strengths of this book lie in the complicated world building and fantastic cast of characters. Mingyu is a woman who walks a tightrope. Her beauty and elegance have captured the imagination of the city and turned her into a celebrity. But she is in an industry that will not look kindly upon her aging body and she is a slave, owned by the woman who runs The Lotus Palace. While her time may command a high price, she never sees this money and is unable to pay “Mother” what she is worth and gain her freedom. Her job places her in the sights of wealthy, powerful men who can destroy both her and the brothel if she is not careful in how she handles them. It is only with Constable Wu that she ever feels truly free to be herself but the constable is far beneath her, a man who can’t afford even an hour of her time. I love that Mingyu is a woman who must survive by her wits in a volatile situation and I especially loved that Ms. Lin showed the dark side of being a courtesan. Mingyu had more freedom and security than a concubine but she was as vulnerable to the wealthy and powerful as any other woman. What’s amazing is how she used her tenuous position and made it work for her, showing herself to be a powerful yet subtle player in the games of the capital.
In many ways what made Constable Wu the perfect match for her was that he trod the same path. As a policeman he had great power in the city but all that power was backed by politicians who could grow displeased with him at any time and turn on him with no notice. While Mingyu’s solution was to skillfully navigate the changing courses of the river of politics, Kaifeng chooses to simply do his job to the best of his ability and let the chips fall where they may. Both know that their lives are always in the hands of others and both dream of freedom.
As a couple what I liked about them was their honesty and vulnerability with each other. Mingyu is herself only with Kaifeng. She is the only person he truly opens up to. While Mingyu is typically the giver in a sexual situation with him she feels free to take as much as she gives, to receive pleasure as well as ensuring her partner receives it. With each other they cease their watchful, manipulative ways and relax into just being themselves. Very romantic.
As is fitting with these two characters the mystery has multiple layers and the only way to solve it is to combine their talents. This works out brilliantly since it allows our romance to mix with our mystery so that neither is neglected. This book also has a nasty opponent for Mingyu and Constable Wu to deal with who is a worthy foe for them both. The author uses her villain perfectly; he is very human and fits naturally into the storyline while at the same time doing nasty things that keep the reader firmly on the side of our heroes. There is a terrific line about a crucial mistake he makes that shows how very skillfully our heroine navigates her world.
I had a few quibbles here and there with the story but none that kept me from thoroughly enjoying it. I am happy to recommend this book to anyone looking for an interesting romantic read.
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