Aug 27 2013 8:30am

First Look: Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace (August 27, 2013)

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie LinJeannie Lin
The Lotus Palace
Harlequin HQN / August 27, 2013 / $7.99 print / $6.15 digital

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?

Jeannie Lin has previously written four romances for Harlequin Historical set in China; The Lotus Palace begins a new series of historical romance-mysteries set during the Tang Dynasty. Lin’s research, skillfully deployed, not only provides an interesting background but sets up various intriguing conflicts for the characters.

Social status in particular affects the characters’ choices: the women who inhabit the Pingkang Li, even the highly-valued, scholarly courtesans, were for the most part sold into their positions by their families or cast off in some other way, and are trapped in their roles unless their contracts are purchased by a man of high status. Even then, their behavior is severely constrained by what’s expected of them. The heroine, Yue-ying, is a low-status maidservant to a courtesan, Mingyu; Yue-ying considers this a step up in the world from her former status, in which she was forced into being a prostitute, a life in which she had no choices at all.

The novel’s hero, Bai Huang, is the son of a bureaucrat, wealthy and relatively high in social status, and as such should not pay any attention at all to Yue-ying, even though he has failed the Imperial examinations several times, and is looked upon as a wastrel. Huang is supposedly courting Mingyu. But he is truly captivated by Yue-ying, because she is more direct and truthful than the other women he has met in the Pingkang Li. She can only afford to be this way occasionally because she is not a courtesan, of course, and she does not dare to go too far, despite Huang’s encouragement, which leads to additional conflict. He wants her to behave one way with him, but she feels she cannot allow herself to care for him too much.

Yue-ying’s and Huang’s uneasy roads to intimacy were the best part of the novel, for me. There are no easy solutions to their dilemma, and Yue-ying in particular tries very hard, for a long time, to remain indifferent to Huang with ruthlessly practical thoughts. Her reserve only increases his interest in her.

The girl had treated him like a sack of potatoes that night. After that, Huang had made a point of trying to catch her eye, but she couldn’t be charmed. She couldn’t be bribed. He was fascinated. Today she wore a pale green robe, the color almost nonexistent and only there to keep the dress from being white. She tried so very hard to be nondescript, to disappear, but her face was likely the most recognizable one in the quarter. The birthmark over her left cheek was a swirl of dark red. It ran down her face and along the line of her jaw, stopping just short of her chin. Her complexion otherwise was fair, highlighting the stain even more. It was as if an artist painting her had started to form the shape of her mouth when he’d inadvertently splashed red ink over the paper. He then left it there, finding the stain created a spark of drama beyond mere prettiness. Like finding a bloodred peony among the snow.

Huang’s clumsy attempts to get to know Yue-ying better do slowly have some effect.

That kiss was forced upon her and there had been no finesse to it. Not even the barest attempt to seduce her into enjoying it. She absolutely would not apologize for the scratch that still marred his perfect face. He deserved it. But the Bai Huang she was looking at now seemed an entirely different man. He smiled crookedly at her. “I know I’m a scoundrel sometimes.” His tone was unexpectedly intimate. Heat rose up her neck until her face burned hot.

However, becoming involved with each other could be socially devastating. Yue-ying is worried not only for herself, but for Huang.

“An aristocrat engaging in relations with a servant is nothing but an embarrassment, to himself and his family. … Don’t you see what people will make of it? …Everyone will assume I’ve swindled you. You’ll be ridiculed.”

If you’re looking for settings outside of Georgian or Victorian England, especially if you enjoy novels about class conflict, definitely give Jeannie Lin’s work a try. Not only is the historical setting fascinating, her characters face real problems that add depth to the story. Aside from all that, the mystery plot is absorbing as well.

Learn more or order a copy of The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin, now available:

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Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. She also reads a lot. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

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