Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review: The Lotus Palace

Maidservant Yue-ying is not one of those beauties. Street-smart and practical, she's content to live in the shadow of her infamous mistress—until she meets the aristocratic playboy Bai Huang.

Bai Huang lives in a privileged world Yue-ying can barely imagine, yet alone share, but as they are thrown together in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery, they both start to dream of a different life. Yet Bai Huang's position means that all ]she could ever be to him is his concubine—will she sacrifice her pride to follow her heart?

Its important to note that while this is set during the Tang Dynasty, much like Lin's other novels, this could more appropriately be considered a Historical Mystery Romance. The intrigue surrounding the deaths and threats in the Pingkang li (North Hamlet, an infamous pleasure district) are as important, if not more so, then the romance of Yue-ying and Bai Huang.

Its because of these events that the two are able to spend time together at all. Bai Huang, who is more then the affable fool he portrays, ropes Yue-ying into being his accomplice in the investigation because of her keen observational skills. The groundwork for this story--why Bai Huang is at Mingyu's (Yue-ying's mistress) parlor so constantly, how Yue-ying becomes involved through no action of her own, how the stories intertwine around each other--can all be considered a string of coincidences. What if Bai Huang did not pay court to Mingyu--would he have ever gotten involved with the second murder? What if Yue-ying refused to speak to him at all instead of indulging her curiosity?  I sometimes felt as if at any moment something could (and would) keep Bai Huang and Yue-ying apart.

There's also a decided lack of judgement in this book on Bai Huang's part.  Oh others judge him for the act he puts on, but he doesn't judge Mingyu for her choices or Yue-ying for her past.  He is sometimes critical of their choices within the framework of the investigation--he doesn't understand Yue-ying's loyalty to Mingyu (who only seems to treat her dismissively) or Mingyu's reluctance to act in her best interests, but he doesn't judge the lives they live.

Lin is also careful to craft a happy ending for Bai Huang and Yue-ying that isn't based on because romance demands it.  Whether they ended up together or not was placed entirely on whether or not the two were strong enough to take that future in their hands.  They needed to be able to acknowledge things wouldn't be easy and that a compromise would have to be met. 

I recommend this book to not only historical romance fans (Lin captures the dark and light of what it meant to be a courtesan of the Pingkang li with a keen eye to detail, more on this later), but also fans of a good mystery. Huang an Yue-ying make for engaging amateur detectives, and the backdrop offers a landscape rife with red herrings and possibilities.