This is Lin's first book. If I had read this before reading the other books or novellas in the series, I would have never read another book from her. This was a rough slog reading. At the 85% mark, I basically skimmed multiple paragraphs at a time just to get to the end.
This is the story of An Li, only daughter to Emperor Shen. She ran from her arranged marriage prior to the wedding because she had reason to believe her husband to be killed her brother. An Li thinks she is a badass, but she comes across as a complete dumbass. She is also an impulsive, immature spoiled brat known to throw down some temper tantrums and had the worst mood swings. She is supposedly skilled with swords, but there were more times she was a loser in a fight and needing rescuing. She escaped a lot of dicey situations in the first half of the book by throwing money around; when she lost her money she was basically useless. She was also very vaguely drawn; it wasn't until the second half of the book we get a detail about her eye color.
The hero of this mess is Ryam (no last name, which speaks volumes about the attention to detail the book gives the character development). Ryam is a "barbarian" wandering around the wrong side of the empire and is starting to make his way back home on the western frontier just beyond the empire when he encounters An Li, dressed as a boy traveling with a group of men. Of course, Ryam senses that An Li is really a female due to her curves...sure. An Li requests Ryam's help in getting her back to Changan, capital of the empire, and to her family so she can reveal her groom's nasty dealings to the court. For no reason whatsoever, Ryam agrees to help.
There is a lot of walking in the woods and talk about the empire in the first half of the book. I guess this is to established the bond between An Li and Ryam, but it was so boring and repetitive. Once in Changan, a mere 3 days is used to isolate An Li from her family (that she talked about So Much during the walking in the woods) and raise some political intrigue. Ryam did his duty and he left the city after collecting his pay. This lasts for approximately 10% of the book, then An Li runs away again, this time for her family's home in Longyou. Along the way she meets Ryam again and he agrees to accompany her on her trip home. At least this time they took horses.
At home in Longyou, An Li and Ryam act on their pants feelings for each other and the reader gets treated to long repetitive "is this love what I am feeling" monologues. An Li's groom is not happy with her dismissal and he tracks the couple throughout the book without being actually anywhere near them. He is mentioned about 25000 times and how he is a "bad man." An Li does not get the warm welcome home she expected by her brother (who remained in the mountain home to take on a job), so she and Ryam run away, AGAIN, to Ryam's home on the frontier. It is here in Yumen Guan (Jade Gate) that groom finds bride and lots of fighting begins, along with a kidnapping. Ryam goes after An Li and her kidnappers and we get a long, boring bloody showdown between groom and hero. In the end, the groom decides to let An Li go because she is not worth all this damn trouble. Emperor Shen, who witnessed the showdown and experienced An Li's constant running away, decides she is not worth the trouble either and gives Ryam the job being occupied by the brother and the couple gets the mountain home. Ryam also gets to use Shen for a last name. Emperor Shen doesn't care, he just wants An Li out of his hair.
So the "bad man" groom is the hero in the next book which tells you everything. Paper tiger fed by An Li's hysterics.