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Review: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

cover_the_lotus_palace

Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Publish Date: out now
How I got this book: ARC from author

The Pingkang Li, where imperial scholars and bureaucrats mingle with beautiful courtesans. At the center is the Lotus Palace, home of the most exquisite courtesans in China…

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?

*Blurb from Goodreads*

I was first introduced to Jeannie Lin’s work when we reviewed The Sword Dancer.  That book was packed full of adventure and sword fighting in a historical setting that I hadn’t read before and now can hardly get enough!  This book was what I can only describe as achingly tender and desperately delightful.

We are whisked away to the Tang dynasty and in to the pleasure quarter where well-educated courtesans entertain noblemen and scholars. Celebrations are thrown night after night and it seems that the entire area is steeped in affluence, happiness, and frivolity.  But there is a darker undercurrent to this seemingly impenetrable haven.  While the women of the pleasure quarter seem to have everything that they could possibly want, they are still owned and are property of the madams of the house. They are still commodities to be bought and sold at will with only the  illusion of freedom.

Yue-ying is the maidservant of one of the most famous courtesans in the pleasure quarter by the name of Mingyu.  A red mark on her face has sealed her fate and most look upon her as being ugly and ruined.  Mingyu is often fawned over and celebrated while very few pay attention to Yue-ying, who is constantly in the background and doing everything she can to make Mingyu’s life as easy as possible.  One day, Lord Bai Huang takes an interest in Yue-ying instead of Mingyu.  On top of that, a  body has been found in the harbor, and one of the famed courtesans has been brutally murdered.  All of this sets off a chain of events involving the unraveling of a mystery and the gentle unfurling of love in the backdrop of a place steeped in ceremony and tradition.  Jeannie Lin excels in creating larger-than-life characters.  From the hero and heroine, to a beggar on the street, to a relentless constable, each are described in detail.  Their mannerisms and way of speaking define them, and I feel just a little bit invested in everybody.

Yue-ying won my heart immediately.  She is strong-willed, fiercely loyal to Mingyu, and speaks plainly.  In a world where words are used in clever games of wit, she has no time to flirt or be celebratory.  She is not educated by courtesan standards, but there is a level of practicality that makes her absolutely endearing.  She observes everything that is going on around her, and her ability to move about in the various quarters as she runs errands for Mingyu gives her the opportunity to hear about what is going on.  While her life isn’t the best, it isn’t the worst either and she just takes each day as it comes.  Her only goal is to see to Mingyu’s happiness.

Lord Bai Huang took a little longer to endear himself to me.  He is described as someone who constantly gambles, can be foolish and impulsive, dishonored his family, and has failed the Imperial exams several times and doesn’t care.  When we first see him, he is flirting with Yue-ying who has no idea of how to handle all of that.  It seems to make Mingyu jealous, and he just continues it without regard.  I had trouble getting a good sense of him or how he was ever going to be worthy of the heroine.  My worries and concerns were quite misplaced.

Together, these two characters fairly leapt off of the page.  As danger hit the pleasure quarter, we see subtle changes in Huang.  The courtesan’s death has shaken him, and he wants to see justice done.  Yue-ying reluctantly joins forces with him despite her reservations about his character.  There is some question of whether or not Huang committed the crime, but Yue-ying fervently believes in his innocence even if she does not fully trust him.  They begin to comb through the pleasure quarter, gaining information and trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Meanwhile, Yue-ying is still juggling helping Mingyu, keeping her involvement in all of this a secret, and trying to understand her feelings toward Huang.  Having grown up in a brothel has left Yue-ying with an understanding of the way that men can be, and Lord Bai Huang seems to encapsulate a great deal of those ideals. Pampered, rich, self-indulgent.  yet, there is just something about him that draws her to him.  I loved the back and forth between these two characters.  There was an undercurrent of attraction that grew stronger every moment that they were together, and their descent in to love was both heart-wrenching and achingly sweet.

One of my favorite scenes is their first kiss:

Straightening her spine, she approached him in even strides. She told herself she would do it without any sign of hesitation. She would do it callously, as if meant nothing more than the parlor games he indulged in.   Bai Huang’s gaze never left her as she neared. He swallowed forcibly, the knot in his throat lifting. She could see that his breathing had quickened. Though he had promised not to move, an exhale parted his lips and her hand trembled as she braced it onto the rail beside him.   She had never done this before, she realized a moment before she pressed her lips onto his.   His mouth was warm and yielded only a little as she moved closer. She parted her lips to test the texture of his lips and, with the smallest touch of her tongue, the taste of the kiss. She could sense the shudder that traveled through him. It made her breath catch and her stomach flutter with excitement.   This was a gift indeed, but not one that he gave to her. It was a gift that she took for herself.

There is so much more to go in to about this book.  as things heat up between Huang and Yue-ying, the danger also begins to escalate.  People are not happy about those two sticking their noses where they don’t belong.  There are several revelations that are brought to light, but those are better left unspoiled by me.  This book made me laugh out loud, cry a little, and cheer for many people to get the happily ever after I felt they deserved.

One of my other favorite scenes is the first time that these two become physically involved.  It doesn’t read as a typical sex scene, and there are uncertainties and a part that made my heart break in to a million pieces.  Jeannie Lin wrote that with care, and it brought tears to my eyes.

There were a few little quibbles that I’d like to mention.  I was easily confused because there were so many characters in the book that were under investigation.  I couldn’t keep them all straight!  So when the killer was revealed, I had to go back and figure out where I’d seen that individual before.  Also, I had trouble buying in to Huang and Yue-ying’s romance at first.  It was all so understated in a way, and it’s hard to put down what I felt exactly.  The resolution to a huge problem that presented itself was easily fixed at the end, almost too tidily so.  But none of those things made me dislike the book.

Their relationship was like tea.  Leaves and water, two very different things from one another mixed together until it began to simmer. Then it boiled over until it couldn’t be contained and was both strong and fragrant. While both were great on their own, it was when they came together that they became something new and necessary while still retaining some of the qualities of themselves.  I loved the characters, the mystery, their budding relationship of possibilities, and this unique historical setting.  Jeannie Lin is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine, and I cannot wait until we delve in to more of the lives of the characters.  Can I put dibbs on a book about Wei-wei, Huang’s sister?  Please? 

I give The Lotus Palace a B+.  

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