Harlequin Historical, $6.25, ISBN 978-0-373-29662-0
Historical Romance, 2011
The Dragon and the Pearl is loosely related to Jeannie Line’s debut effort Butterfly Swords, but this one can stand alone pretty well. If Butterfly Swords featured archetypes more prevalent in modern wuxia tales (lots of fancy kung-fu and exotic woo-woo), this one features archetypes more common in traditional down-to-earth Chinese tales – the alluring icy seductress and the powerful military man. While courtesans and mistresses are not typically glorified in romance, in the old days in China, the concubine of a powerful man was treated with a degree of respect and even reverence that may surprise a reader more familiar with the Western perspective of a courtesan. The downside of this is that these favored darlings often got poisoned by ambitious rivals or they were forced to commit suicide once their lovers became bored of them.
Therefore, the fact that our hero, General Li Tao, has no reservations based on her former status when it comes to marrying our heroine, Ling Suyin, is actually plausible. Ling Suyin, famed for being the favored concubine of the previous August Emperor, is a great beauty. Now that the Emperor is dead, Suyin hopes to spend the rest of her life in peace. Life as the Guifei was no piece of cake – Suyin had to spend every day in the palace on her toes, as there were always treacherous concubines and eunuchs as well as ambitious politicians hoping to either use her as a pawn in their games or to remove her from her lofty position in the palace. Alas, the Emperor’s death doesn’t signify an end to the life Suyin hopes to leave behind – one fine day, General Li Tao shows up and politely puts her under house arrest in his home.
Li Tao is a general loyal to the previous Emperor, and he is currently on thin ice with the current Emperor because he has so far refused to openly show his loyalty to his new liege. Instead of obeying Emperor Zhen and cutting down the number of men in his army, Li Tao holds fast in his location, arguing that his army is needed to protect the country from being invaded by its neighbor. Many view Li Tao’s stance as treasonous. A rival general is meanwhile consolidating his power in the palace, and Li Tao, believing that that man is going to kill Suyin, moves to place that woman under his protection while he tries to figure out what exactly is going on. Suyin, understandably, is not too pleased to be a pawn stuck in what seems to be a brewing civil war between the forces of two powerful men, doesn’t know whether to kiss Li Tao for being so dark and sexy or to find ways to get away from him.
The Dragon and the Pearl has a quaint and, sometimes, discordant mix of traditional Chinese values and more noticeable Americanized tropes. Li Tao’s happy household staff would be more at home in a Regency romance, for example, but in many other ways, the author manages to stay admirably in line with the character norms and attitude of their time. For example, a character that can be considered a villain from the hero’s point of view displays motivations that would seem puzzling if I look at it from a contemporary point of view. Okay, his machinations do seem far-fetched, but the reasons for his machinations make sense considering the importance placed upon family and, more significantly, an heir to continue one’s legacy by the Chinese folks of old. Suyin’s coldness that matches her beauty makes plenty of sense considering how being a favored consort is actually a pretty hazardous job. Some readers may find the reverence displayed towards Suyin by most characters in this story odd, but that’s because they are not looking at things from the Chinese perspective of that time. Suyin may be a concubine, but her position was a highly respected one as she was second most powerful women after the Empress in the palace. However, the lengths the author goes to preserve Suyin’s virginity for Li Tao is definitely a concession to present day romance formula, and a very implausible concession at that.
I find the song and dance between Li Tao and Suyin intriguing, although a lack of good point of view from Li Tao causes him to remain mostly a cipher. He’s tall, dark, handsome, and a bit of a gauche when it comes to playing politics, but what else, I’m not too sure. I do see some shades of actual Chinese generals of old in his motivations and persona, and I can only wonder which Chinese leader or general inspired Ms Lin to create Li Tao. Suyin has more point of view here, so she’s a more well-drawn character, and I like that she stays mostly in character as a woman who is essentially a good person, but she won’t hesitate to play the games needed to keep both her and Li Tao alive even if it means breaking the rules a bit. Suyin is pretty believable as a woman who had to learn fast and hard how to play the political game in order to survive, and I like her.
If I have any significant complaint, it’s how the story ends up barreling into a happily for now ending in a rushed and rather unsatisfying manner. There is an epic tale in here, but due to the length constraints of the Harlequin Historical format, the story ends up downplaying much of the potentially interesting military shenanigans. As someone whose favorite parts of those otherwise tedious Romance of the Three Kingdoms books are the military power plays, I would love to see the games played between Li Tao and his rival expanded into a more exciting denouement. Of course, that is not going to happen in a Harlequin Historical romance.
And yes, the ending of this story is definitely a happy for now one. I personally have no problems with this, and in fact, a happily ever after ending will be unrealistic given the things that happened up to that point. But readers who want a more clear-cut happy ending may want to approach this one with some degree of caution. Then again, can they realistically expect one in a romance set in a turbulent and unstable time?
At the end of the day, The Dragon and the Pearl is a pretty interesting read. She could have given me another story that appeals to Western sensibilities – that will be Butterfly Swords – but instead she presented this, a mostly well-written tale that contains some motivations and behaviors that may seem alienating and even confusing to readers unfamiliar to traditional Chinese values and virtues. I appreciate and enjoy this, even as I hope this doesn’t end up biting the author in the rear end.