The Lotus Palace
I’ve enjoyed Jeannie Lin’s China-set historicals so far and I was thrilled when I heard she would be writing single title as well. I went into The Lotus Palace expecting some element of suspense in the plot, but otherwise I had no idea what I would be getting into. As it turns out, it was quite a treat.
First of all, if you’ve never read Jeannie Lin, you are missing out. She is one of those increasingly rare authors who works great historical and cultural details into her stories without it ever feeling forced. And that’s exactly the type of worldbuilding readers get here. The story takes place in the Pingkang Li, the entertainment district of the Tang Dynasty capital of Changan. The heroine, Yue-Ying, is maidservant to Mingyu, a legendary beauty among the courtesans of the district. Yue-Ying is used to living in the shadows, so when she is noticed by Bai Huang, one of the men who hangs around the Lotus Palace and other pleasure houses of the quarter, it’s an unsettling experience for her.
Though somewhat in disgrace with his family, Bai Huang still comes from a very privileged world while Yue-Ying was the child of a peasant farmer who sold her when she was young. The differences in their worlds likely would have kept them apart were it not for a murder in the Pingkang Li. Yue-Ying fears someone she knows may be implicated in the crime, while Bai Huang has his own reasons for wanting to see it solved. Given their respective positions, it soon becomes obvious that each can access portions of society that the other cannot and so they are thrown together in an attempt to share information and solve the crime.
This book truly stands out because not only is the worldbuilding well done, but the cast of characters works very well also. Yue-Ying has some insecurities related to her past and her appearance, but she does not wallow in them. Instead, she comes across as a strong, intelligent and rather no-nonsense heroine. She behaves in a way that appears believable given her time and place in history, but she’s also not inclined to put up with any shenanigans from the hero. Likewise, Bai Huang is not the rakish buffoon he initially seems and he certainly has some issues of his own. However, over the course of the story, we see him learning to deal with the hand life deals him like an adult, and by the end of the book, it’s easy to see why so many in the Pingkang Li like him.
The secondary characters impressed me as well. I enjoyed the scenes with Constable Wu, who struck me as an intelligent man who is more than he initially seems to be, and I hope we learn more about him in future books. Mingyu and some of the other residents of the Pingkang Li stood out as well because the author does a good job of using fairly brief scenes to show us sides of even minor characters that aren’t immediately visible in the main plot action. For instance, Mingyu holding court with her admirers, including Bai Huang, is a very different person than Mingyu speaking privately with her maid.
So, with all of this worldbuilding and intrigue, how does the romance fare? Well, it fares very well as it turns out. The suspense portion of the story is well-developed for the most part and it’s enjoyable, even if the mystery portion of the plot sometimes takes a backseat. However, the manner in which the romance develops alongside it makes this book such a pleasure. Having Yue-Ying and Bai Huang thrown together to investigate the crimes in the Pingkang Li makes sense and the way in which each character starts to let down his or her guard around the other makes the growth of feeling between them feel very natural.
So, why wasn’t this one a DIK for me? Well, it was really the last portion of the book that bobbled a bit. The story flowed very well and the obstacles standing between Yue-Ying, Bai Huang and their happy ending certainly seemed insurmountable, particularly considering the very limited choices available to them in their culture. However, at the very end of the story, things changed in a way that felt unrealistically fairytale-ish. I enjoy a good fairytale, but the plot twists in this ending just felt too contrived. Even so, The Lotus Palace is still an excellent read and one of my favorite historicals so far this year.