Can you recall the experience of tasting a new dish? The ingredients somewhat familiar, the overall impression a little peculiar. You’re not used to it … but you like it. You like it! It’s fresh, interesting, new, yet, there’re things here you’ve had before. Reading Jeannie Lin’s The Jade Temptress was such an experience for Miss Bates. Romance? Check, wondrously romantic. Enemies-to-lovers-good. Murder mystery? Miss Bates read tons of those back in pre-romance days and still occasionally enjoys them. Check to an intriguing whodunit. Throw two beloved narratives into a bowl, fold in a cool, jaded courtesan and colder, hard-nosed, heart-closed-off policeman, bind them with a compelling setting, 9th-century China, and you have Jeannie Lin’s sublime, elegant, and earthy novel, The Jade Temptress. A romance/mystery narrative so mesmerizing that Miss Bates carried it to work, read through her lunch hour and every spare moment of the work day into post-dinner evening and late into the night. It’s that good. It’s not an easy read, despite its elegant, understated prose. This is a harsh, hierarchical world, difficult scenes ensue … but it is utterly fascinating and beautiful, like the “jade temptress” and her detective-lover.
“Short of the changing of the seasons and the rise of the moon, nothing could ever be certain. Not one’s fortunes from day to day and not one’s next breath.” Thus our hero, Wu Kaifang, a constable in the city of Changan, views life. Tall, dark, and handsome, Wu strides the back alleys of the city determinedly seeking truth and justice. Though he paints himself a strictly rational man (“Wu … was hard and without emotion,” says our heroine) who seeks only to discover the truth behind a crime, he’s endearingly vulnerable, in need of love and acceptance. His past is painful, though we only discover this as Lin subtly, lovingly reveals it from one end of the narrative to the other.
“All she had wanted was a night of freedom, to know desire and warmth and passion.” Thus our heroine, Mingyu, “the jade temptress,” the beautiful, most-sought-after courtesan of Changan, musically talented, mysterious, and refined. The truth of being a courtesan, however, is that she is indentured to Madame Sun, her “den” mother, who bought her and uses her as her greatest commodity. Her cage is gilded, pleasurable, and luxurious, but a cage nonetheless. What price is she willing to pay for love and freedom?
Mingyu seeks Wu’s professional help when she discovers the beheaded body of her latest, powerful, wealthy, and influential patron, General Deng. As Wu and Mingyu embark on a quest to discover Deng’s murderer, to clear their names of the crime (for they are implicated and don’t know why), they grow to care for one another. Love comes slowly in this romance, like mist rolling over mountains. It takes unawares, but clings. Initially, Mingyu likes and is attracted to Wu. Being with him, making love with him is her sole chance “to know desire and warmth and passion.” However, when the heart is implicated, the cage’s security and luxury no longer nourish the soul.
There are things about The Jade Temptress that Miss Bates found difficult. Lin’s world is violent. A recent post at Jessica’s Read React Review blog discussed ritualistic violence in Gabaldon’s Outlander and had Miss Bates thinking about The Jade Temptress. Jessica makes the point, if Miss Bates understood correctly, that “violence … is a way Gabaldon characterized Jamie, and the Highlanders, and even the era.” Outlander‘s violent scenes are as over-wrought and frenzied as its love scenes. Using Jessica’s perceptive point as an analogy to Lin’s romance novel, The Jade Temptress‘s scenes of violence and love-making are as serene and methodical as the tea ceremony that Mingyu presides over … but no less effective. They do not characterize Mingyu and Wu Kaifang; they provide historical authenticity, but they do not define character, as Miss Bates thinks Jessica’s post rightly suggests Outlander does.
Wu Kaifang and Mingyu share a terrible incident from a year before the events of the novel. (Miss Bates hasn’t read The Lotus Palace, the volume previous to The Jade Temptress, but she will. Not that any information is missing here, because she enjoyed this one so much.) Mingyu was accused of a crime and Wu Kaifang was her interrogator. She remembers their encounter thus: “The first time Wu had interrogated her, he’d taken six bamboo sticks and laced them between her fingers … Each time she’d refused to answer, he would tighten the string around the sticks, crushing her knuckles … Wu Kaifang watched her suffer without a hint of emotion on his face, but then the pain stopped without explanation.” Unlike the frequent world-steeped-in-violence Outlander scenes, The Jade Temptress is as sparing and spare in its depiction of violence as it is in its depiction of sex. The violence is part of the way investigations were conducted. It stops. Why? Because Wu Kaifang is overwhelmed by his attraction to Mingyu? Possibly. More likely, he realized that physical duress would not give him results; he is rational and methodical, not deliberately cruel or desirous of dominance. He has nothing to prove. And he is consistently a mind over brawn hero. Miss Bates loved this about Lin’s characterization of Wu Kaifang.
She loved that these characters feel desire, yearn, and hope, as romance characters tend to, but they also THINK. And that is a rarity in romance: a lovely balance of subtle feeling, cool thought, and precise, considered action. Wu thinks about what he did, near-destroying Mingyu’s hands; instead of an “alpha” conversion of grovelling, he confronts its reality, what it means. He doesn’t turn from aggressor to protector as many romance heroes do. He owns it when he hears Mingyu play music. Miss Bates will let his heart-rending, stark words stand: “In the face of her beauty, he’d seen his own cold brutality.”
Lin’s Jade Temptress moved Miss Bates because it depicted a hero and heroine so strong and yet so vulnerable and alone. Wu and Mingyu have lived merely surviving, wresting some control for themselves from a world where appearing an iota less than what is expected leaves them in the street. Precarious as their lives may be, they’re, moreover, without family or connection, or they think they are. Miss Bates loved the raw honesty of a hero and heroine who are lonely. Wu recognizes this in Mingyu, “Beneath the flirtation, there was something much more complicated. Something lonely and searching.” Mingyu, in turn, cool and controlled in her artifice, acknowledges that “Loneliness took hold of her, hollowing out her insides.” Wu Kaifang, rational as an Eastern Sherlock, is broken by his love for Mingyu, “The loneliness came crashing in on him like a rush of cold, black water, the emptiness of his days, waiting for a glimpse of her,” even as Mingyu sees in him what he saw in her, ” … passion and desire … [she] had seen both in his eyes last night. She had also seen loneliness, something she understood too well.” Loneliness brings them together, but until they admit to connection and love, as Wu says to Mingyu, ” ‘The only place we fit is in darkness.’ “
Beyond the uncertainty of their world, its violence and absolute obedience to hierarchy, Mingyu and Wu’s “loneliness” is the first chink in their emotional armor. Their world is not only about security, narrow circumstances and opportunities, and lack of choices, it can be one of freedom and love. This wonderful romance admits others into the hero and heroine’s lives. Wu discovers that in his lonely work, he has made friends. Mingyu discovers that she’s not just an object of physical desire, a trophy to be paraded when a man has achieved success, there are people in her life who will succor, defend, and protect her … and they are not all Wu. This role does not belong solely to the hero and makes Lin’s novel all that stronger. Wu and Mingyu’s best and ultimate discovery, as in the most wonderful of romances, is love for the other which completes the truncated self. Mingyu discovers this is not about ownership, as she tries to redefine what she wants to be to Wu, ” ‘If I know anything about you, Lady Mingyu, it’s that no man can truly claim you.’ … ‘You can.’ ” The answer is love freely given and taken, “The only man who would want her to be free, but didn’t want to own her.”
Miss Bates thinks Lin’s The Jade Temptress is a great romance novel. You should read it. Miss B. rarely tells her readers to read something. Despite this, she admits the bamboo-finger-torture was difficult to reconcile to the romantic relationship. But but but, it’s just so good … which, she supposes is how many people feel about Outlander, though she’s not one of them. (It stands with Gone With the Wind in DNF-hated status.) Moreover, Mingyu makes a relationship about-face that does not fully convince. Nevertheless, these are niggling negativities in a novel that proves “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. No matter how cool and collected our hero and heroine are, tenderness breaks through.
Jeannie Lin’s The Jade Temptress is published by Harlequin and available as strictly “e” at your favoured vendor.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
What have you read lately that surprised and wowed you?