Desert Isle Keeper
The Sword Dancer
The best historical romances are those that draw you into another world and make you see, smell and touch what is going on, sharing the emotions and the mindset of characters who are thousands of miles and hundreds of years removed from your own experience. This is what happened to me when I read (in one sitting, I might add) The Sword Dancer by Jeannie Lin.
Following a theft of gold and some extremely valuable jade, renowned thief-catcher Zheng Hao Han is present during the arrest of a troupe of traveling performers. One of the performers, a female sword dancer, attracts his attention because she handles the sword as if she can fight with it, and he follows her when she tries to run. After quite a chase he manages to capture her, but she escapes from prison during the night.
Wen Li Feng was indeed involved in the theft, but has since separated from the group of bandits that was responsible for it. Among the jade pieces in the loot were some that looked a lot like a jade piece she has owned since childhood, and she needs to find out more about that particular set in order to trace her lost family. Making enquiries leaves a trace for Han to follow, however, and so he and Li Feng cross paths several times. Finally circumstances make it advisable to work together, at least for a time.
Han starts off as a very rigid person: Li Feng runs, and so she must be guilty. If a person has committed a crime, he or she must be arrested and brought before the magistrate. The son of a magistrate himself, he sees only black and white. Yet he is attracted to Li Feng and admires her daring. They are equals in many ways, with a strong pull of both attraction and like between them, even when their circumstances seem to make it impossible for them to be together.
I liked both Han and Li Feng tremendously. Yes, he is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud at first, but a very charming one, and he so obviously appreciates the battle of wills with Li Feng. Li Feng in turn is immensely capable and loyal without ever becoming a boring picture of perfection. What I enjoyed about both is that they are not rich or important, but live among the ordinary people. And the information slowly revealed about their backgrounds had me moved almost to tears at times.
The secondary characters, even rather minor ones, are simply great. According to Jeannie Lin’s website, this novel is the first of a trilogy, and I hope that several of the minor characters will make an appearance in the later novels, I liked them so much. (Favorites were, among others, the doctor, the magistrate and the courtesan.)
The language is marvellous. It’s lyrical and evocative, and just drew me in. Not a phrase sounds wrong, every image is adding to the richness of the text. Yet what I probably loved most about the book is the setting. Tang Dynasty China emerges in front of my eyes. Of particular interest is the contrast between the urban, lawful society (lawful at least as perceived by Han) and that of the outlaws that are regarded as a threat to it. Insights into the judicial system and the living conditions of the common folk are also provided, all of it cleverly interwoven in the plot. I was utterly fascinated.
Amazingly enough, The Sword Dancer is the first novel I have ever read by Jeannie Lin. It won’t be the last, and I am looking forward very much indeed to immersing myself once more in her marvellous stories and in 9th century China.