A courtesan could scold, tease, argue. She could even use her tears if the need arose. Her arsenal was filled with every woman's weapon that existed, but the one thing she could not do was cause a man to lose face.
Quite possibly my favorite quote in the whole book, because if there's one thing the Chinese hate to death, it's "losing face." I was probably laughing hysterically when I read that. Except I also got to see it in a more exotic context, the tightrope a courtesan has to walk when playing with the men who hold power over her--usually men with a need to possess.
I have been going bloodthirsty for Chinese anything for a little while, and the discovery of the name of Jeannie Lin seemed perfect. It also helps that it looks like her novels mostly work as standalones, so I can pick and choose which ones seem the most interesting. This is the second in the series, but I read it first because of the allure of what seemed like a woman's sexual daring.
And it really does feel like it's set in Tang dynasty China, unlike GGK's heavily sexualized, heavily fetishized, somewhat Westernized version in Under Heaven. The correct honorifics are used, appropriate modes of address. There are fascinating hints at the complexity of the imperial bureaucracy, distinctions in social class, invocations of poetry and history in a world where sly verbal sparring is a dominant form of exchange. One reviewer said that reading Jeannie Lin was like watching a Chinese drama, and I agree. I wasn't surprised to find that the murder mystery was just as thoroughly researched as it seemed--Lin says that Wu Kaifeng's forensic knowledge is based on actual records of criminal investigations from the Han through the Tang.
And there's the way culture is woven into the structure of the story, too. The belief that destiny is the one who plays matchmaker. So strong that even the most twisted character in the story--Tang dynasty version of the creepy stalker, you might say--seems to share that belief, and channels every ounce of his willpower to make it come true.
On the flipside, it's Mingyu who realizes her dreams against all odds through a mutual growth with Wu Kaifeng--a romance that destiny seems to be working against. My only complaint is that I was hoping for a somewhat more epic confrontation with the main threat
who for such a full-fledged, powerful character gets put in his place a tad too quickly.
But for all that, it was a wonderfully written relationship, alternating between the clash of personalities and shared vulnerability. Threatened by outward circumstances, but steadfast--or maybe not?--internally.
Because this is romance, there is a strong undercurrent of sexual longing that culminates into a few sex scenes, all of which are of the bodice-ripping sort. Don't let that deter you, though. The main plot is a thoroughly puzzling murder case and I can safely say that there is no way to know what's going to happen. I cracked this open at 12:30 in the morning, thinking to get in a few chapters, and before I knew it I'd gulped down 60% and it was 4 a.m. with two hours left before I had to get up for school. I woke up two hours later with no ill effects and burned through the last 40% between classes before lunchtime, my face likely glued to the page. I can't remember.
My only regret is that I can't seem to find it in paper form, which I would really like to, cracked iPad screen and all. Still, I'll be searching for more Jeannie Lin with a ridiculously big smile on my face. I also secretly fantasize about what this book would be like if it were made into a Chinese drama...ok, never mind. *blushes*