The Lotus Palace
by Jeannie Lin
Book 1 of The Pingkang Li Mysteries
It is a time of celebration in 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?
The first time I read a Jeannie Lin book, it brought back memories of when I used to watch historical Chinese television series all the time. While I still watch the occasional Chinese historical, I don't marathon them like I used to. Reading The Lotus Palace, I find that that feeling is still there--of course, the television series are a bit more chaste, while this book has a few steamy sex scenes, but that's still the feel.
And of course, because of this, it might make me a bit biased towards this book, with it's historical Tang Dynasty setting, the beautiful descriptions of clothing, the streets, the vendors, the residences... and a lovely sweet romance that makes your heart ache. Because these are those same elements (once again, minus the sex) that had made my love for Chinese historical, Chinese wuxia series grow with every viewing.
The Lotus Palace may be a mystery, but it is definitely first, and foremost, a romance. And with that in mind, it's easy to appreciate the silly interactions between Yue-ying and Bai Huang as the two of them amateurishly investigate the death of a famous courtesan. I'm not entirely certain I would actually describe their interactions, or even their entire relationship as sweet, really. Between Yue-ying and Bai Huang, their love story hinges more on the young, first love variety, where everything is over-dramatic and angst-ridden and almost dream-like.
I'm not even entirely sure I cared much for their romance, really. They certainly made a cute pair of friends, that's for sure. But Bai Huang came off a bit too naive and idealistic for my liking.
And this is where I find I really liked the characters--yeah, I know I contradict myself.
Neither Bai Huang nor Yue-ying are your typical romance novel hero or heroine. Bai Huang is a flamboyant, flirtatious scholar, who spends his days and nights making light of everything. Yue-ying is a hardened girl, a maidservant who used to slave away in a low-end brothel as a prostitute, simply trying to survive each day of her life, trapped in a world where she has no freedoms or choices as a woman. By fortune, she is taken in by the most famous courtesan of the Pingkang Li, Mingyu, and now works as her maidservant, never having to service men with her body as long as she stays with Mingyu.
It's a typical Cinderella romance between our couple where, of all the beautifully adorned and decorated women in the Pingkang Li, Bai Huang happens to notice the quiet maidservant, who all but tries to make herself blend into the wall at all times, whose face is marred by a red birthmark cover one cheek from eye to chin, and becomes intrigued enough by her to pursue her.
The Lotus Palace isn't an entirely memorable experience. The romance has it's moments, of course, where it strays from the typical tropes. For instance, I like that Yue-ying doesn't fall for Bai Huang immediately, and reacts in the appropriate fashion, slapping him when he tries to kiss her. I like that Bai Huang's charms don't really work on Yue-ying, and in fact only serve to make her more annoyed with him. I like that Yue-ying is always trying to be practical about whatever chemistry is brewing between herself and Bai Huang--tell him that he needs to back off, that they are from different worlds, that his interest in her can only cause trouble for the both of them.
But I also like that Bai Huang is so persistent, knowing that this is a girl he needs to work for in order to court; that she obviously won't just melt in his arms just because he's good-looking, or powerful, or pushes her for more. However, on the other hand, I also love how flawed he is, and it takes him nearly half the book to realize how naive he is about real life, and it takes Yue-ying's harsh words to make him start looking at things in a more practical sense.
I like that the first sex scene wasn't mind-blowing, and in fact, even touches upon the hardships of Yue-ying's past, which is what makes that first sex with Bai Huang kind of depressing. I like how it takes the two of them some time to work up to a more intimate relationship, and even after sleeping together, they still have to work on their relationship--sex doesn't fix everything, obviously.
What I wish could have been touched upon more, however, was the base mystery that brings our couple together as an investigative team. It wasn't like the mystery was forgotten, because it was very much in the foreground of the book, brought up again and again as Yue-ying and Bai Huang continue to search for answers. But for some strange reason, when thinking about my reading experience, I have to admit, I'm not entirely sure I recall a whole lot about the murder mystery that was really all that intriguing.
It was a fairly standard murder mystery; I had my thoughts on the events that took place surrounding both murders. But that's about it.
I enjoyed The Lotus Palace a lot. In fact, I practically devoured it, because it was so beautifully written and easy to follow. Of course, as I'd already admitted, I have my biases.
This book could also count for:
- Murder Most Foul: A murder takes place, and out main characters are out to solve it!
- Amateur Sleuth: Yue-ying is a maidservant, and Bai Huang is a scholar.
- Romantic Suspense
- Terrifying Women