by Jeannie Lin, historical (2012)
Harlequin Historical, $6.25, ISBN 978-0-373-29694-1
It is a cosmic rule of sorts that every romance author must perform her own take on that Pygmalion or My Fair Lady thing at least once in her career, and Jeannie Lin wastes no time coming up with hers, the oh-so-predictably titled My Fair Concubine. This one is set during the Tang dynasty, just like how the author's previous efforts are set in medieval China.
Unfortunately, the hero's name is Chang Fei Long, which takes some getting used to because Fei Long, or "flying dragon", is such a tired and overused name in such stories. Not to mention, that flying dragon thing has been linked to Bruce Lee's myth for so long that I can't help picturing the hero as that guy. And let's face it, Bruce Lee is not exactly the most photogenic guy around.
So, the concubine. We have our heroine, Yan Ling, who seems destined to serve tea to groping customers under the supervision of an unpleasant employer, when she overhears our surly hero saying that he could use any woman - even Yan Ling - right about then. Thinking that he is talking about that, our heroine does what every sensible servant girl of that time will do towards a nobleman of a higher status than her: she throws tea onto his expensive robes. Anyone shocked that she gets thrown out of the teahouse subsequently by her enraged master?
Fei Long has a problem. His sister is supposed to marry some nobleman in distant Khitan in a political arrangement, but she has run away with some bloke. The family honor is at stake, and not to mention, he has debts to pay. So Fei Long needs a woman, one he can pass off as Pearl, so that the marriage can take place. When Yan Ling approaches him for help - she has made herself homeless and jobless, remember - he decides that she will do just nicely. He has to groom her first, of course, and turn her into a refined lady that can be passed off as of genteel quality. And there we go.
While the previous two books by this author were by no means keeper quality where I am concerned, they were at least never boring. My Fair Concubine bores me silly because it's not the most interesting take on an overdone premise. Yes, the setting is exotic, I guess, but I never get the impression that Fei Long and Yan Ling are people of their time and culture. They are those same people in that kind of story.
Let's start with Yan Ling. She's been called several times by the hero as a "practical" and "logical" woman. This is just like the author showing me a cow and having the hero telling me non-stop that the cow has a striking resemblance to Hugh Laurie. No matter how hard I squint, I still see a cow. It's the same here. No matter how I try to convince myself that the hero is right, I still see a silly wench who refuses to hand over her precious virtue and acts wildly on a mistaken impulse, thus causing her to be all alone and vulnerable, but at the same time, Yan Ling has no issues agreeing to being married off to some distant bloke in order to enjoy a life of wealth. So she's not a whore until she's a whore when it's convenient? Yan Ling will be more believable if she had been indeed as practical as the author claims, if Yan Ling holds on to her virtue until she finds the highest bidder. But no, Yan Ling is all about not putting out until she decides that she's in love with the hero, and then she wants to put out ASAP, the consequences be damned. So no, the cow is still a cow, and Yang Ling is still that standard twit heroine found in so many historical romances.
Fei Long isn't very believable either. On one hand, he shows some typical chauvinistic attitude that is typical of the men of his time. But when it comes to Yan Ling, his attitude magically morphs into that of a more liberal gentleman: he tolerates and even enjoys her "spirited" outbursts and sass when he'd been furious over lesser transgressions from other women, for example. As a result, both he and Yan Ling come off as contemporary people playing dress-up-in-old-China games. The secondary characters aren't any better - their attitude towards Fei Long and Yan Ling are uncharacteristically liberal in a manner that does not necessarily apply to other people. The concubine of Fei Long's late father, for example, actually supports his sister's running away with another guy, even if this means social and financial ruin to the family. I am never given any credible glimpse into how these characters can come to have such attitude. Sure, it is possible that there is a pacifist Viking out there, maybe a vegetarian Knight of the Round Table, or a Chinese warlord who writes feminist tracts in his free time. But these are exceptions rather than the norm, and the author should show me how these characters turn out to be this way.
At any rate, the romance is pretty dull and generic, mostly because it's a familiar take on a familiar premise, complete with silly heroine antics and all. But this story can also be quite disconcerting in the sense that the author has tried to give the story an authentic historical flavor where the setting is concerned, but she allows the hero and the heroine to play by their own rules. This story is some kind of mutant authentic-not-really hybrid. Perhaps it would be far less bizarre if the author had gone all the way in being a stickler for accuracy or throwing all rules completely out the window.
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