Mills & Boon, £4.99, ISBN 978-0-263-91724-6
Historical Romance, 2016
Silk, Swords and Surrender is actually a collection of four stories that were previously published separately by the Harlequin Undone imprint, bundled with one new short story. I think it says a lot about how poor value for money the Harlequin Undone stories are if they can cram four in here without needing to make this one significantly thicker than the usual single title in this line, but this particular collection is certainly solid value for money. After all, the stories are all generally solid.
We start with the new story, The Touch of Moonlight. This is a pretty standard “The girl I knew from my childhood days has grown boobs now… HOT!” story, only to be given a Tang dynasty twist. Baozhen, our hero, has always considered Lian to be the tomboy girl he has known since he was a kid, must to her consternation as she’d like him to be more than her friend. So, she hopes to make jealous and notice her more by asking him to introduce her to a dashing acquaintance of him. Baoxiang is vexed because this guy is everything he is: someone that charms the pants off ladies, in other words, and damn it, nobody should be charming Lian’s pants off if he has anything to say about it!
This one is a pretty nice way to kick things off, as while the story isn’t nothing new if you discount the setting, the whole thing comes together nicely. Even the potential big misunderstanding matter is settled in a manner that is sensible and – I like this – actually enforces the fact that those two may just be alright together after all.
Next up, The Taming of Mei Lin, first published back in 2010. Wu Mei Lin wants to avoid being at the receiving end of the amorous attentions of the magistrate who already has two wives, so she declares that she will only wed a man who can best her in a duel. Well, one day, a man shows up to do just that. Shen Leung, a master swordsman with strong ties to the emperor. Now they are both in a pickle, as he, unaware of the full term of the duel (he just wants the challenge), is obligated to marry someone he considers to be above his station – something that will simultaneously saves her face and humiliates her. Since this is a short story, that dilemma is easily resolved – it has to be, heh, to meet the word count – but the main attraction of this short story is the sword fight. Both characters seem equally matched in terms of passion and spirit, and I have a great time reading this one. It may not be hot in the sex scene department, but it’s hot in many other good ways.
The Lady’s Scandalous Night is made of the same stuff – it has our hero Wei Chen, politely calling on Yao Ru Jiang – called River on the account of her name meaning just that – to tell her that he has to kill her brother in order to restore his own honor. What a well-mannered assassin. River is no fool, she has her father quietly escorted out of the premises upon Chen’s arrival, and if she has to seduce Chen in order to delay the man as well as to somehow send word to her brother (who is on the opposite side of Chen when it comes to the political instability of the region), she will. Well, seduction leads to complicated feelings, as it always does in romance stories. This one is really fun too. River is not a sword-wielding kickass lady like Mei Lin, but she can definitely hold her own against a big boy like Chen, and this one becomes a very satisfying story of cat and mouse game as a result.
An Illicit Temptation isn’t very action-heavy, but it is still a well-paced story without any lull in the fun. Dao is the daughter of a household servant, so even if her father is the emperor, she had nothing to look forward to in the future other than to be the maid of her half-sisters. Then, the princess who was to be bundled off to the khagan of Khitan in a marriage that would cement a peace treaty between the two regions eloped. Dao was picked as the replacement, rechristened Princess An-Ming, and, when the story opens, is on her way to the khagan’s court. Leading her entourage and in charge of her safety is the handsome Kwan-Li. As you can probably guess, inconvenient feelings develop between those two during the journey. Will such a love plunge the neighborhood back into chaos? Like other short stories, this one has no room for believable resolution to a pretty complicated problem, so this one gets resolved in a rather unbelievably convenient manner. But it is probably a tall order to expect more, I guess. This one still has plenty of things to love – a heroine out of her elements but never stupid, a reliable bodyguard hero, and a well-paced story. The romance could be better, but then again, short story limitations apply. This one may not be as fun as the previous two stories, but it’s still a solid read.
Finally, we have Capturing the Silken Thief. On paper, it should be the most interesting, as it features two characters from the “nobody” class – a scholar, Luo Cheng, and a musician, Jia. Jia wants to steal an erotic pillow book from Cheng in order to buy her freedom, and all the poor man wants is to be left alone to finish his studying for the imperial exam. This one has plenty of atmosphere, although I suspect that readers unfamiliar with the cultural elements in this story may find the author’s insertion of these elements to be frustratingly under-detailed. But the characters feel like by-the-number types and their romance never comes to life the way the ones in the previous stories did. Hence, this is the least interesting story of the ones here, but it’s still well written enough to be an adequate closure to this collection.
As far as collections of short stories go, Silk, Swords and Surrender is one of the better ones I’ve come across. Think of this as a nice ticket to a trip back to the old days of China.