The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin
I liked this one a lot because it was set in Ancient China and there’s courtesans, swords, and rich culture in it. And murder. The author Jeannie Lin is really good at writing historical romance novels based in China, this one during the Tang Dynasty.
Yue-ying is a servant to one of the most celebrated courtesans Miyung and is often in the shadows. She also hides half of her face in the shadows because she has a big red birthmark on her cheek. She is used to being ignored and treated like she isn't there so when Bai Huang, a handsome and roguish scholar, starts paying attention to her, she will have none of it.
Bai Huang is the eternal scholar, having already failed the imperial civil service exam three times. He’s a wealthy playboy with lots of money to burn and he doesn’t seem to mind that his peers and elders treat him like a jolly idiot. In fact, he encourages it. Spoiler alert: he's actually a spy for his father who works for the Ministry of Defense. He hangs out in pleasure houses and gambling dens to gather information for his father.
Unfortunately, he used to be a wastrel. He would gamble all of his money and his dad would pay his debts. One time, he borrowed from the wrong money lender, so his dad had to rescue his butt again. From then on, he became known as a good-for-nothing gambler and drunk.
Bai Huang writes bad poetry and odes to the celebrated courtesan Yue-ying works for and publicly courts her. His true attention, however, is focused on the shy and humble Yue-ying who refuses to give him any face. In fact, when he attempts to kiss her in the dark, he receives a resounding slap for his efforts.
Meanwhile, murder is afoot. A famous courtesan is strangled to death around the same time an unknown person is found dead and drowned in the canals. Bai Huang comes under suspicion because he was seen talking to the lady on the day of her murder. The lady wants to get out of Dodge and sought Bai Huang to help her escape.
Another suspect is Sun Miyung, the courtesan Yue-ying works for, who turns out to be her sister. When they were young, their parents sold them both to slavers and they were taken to pleasure houses: Yue-ying to a low-grade brothel and Miyung to a fancy bordello because she is very beautiful.
Even as Yue-ying tries to escape from Bai-Huang, he doggedly pursues her and doesn’t relent. One time, while out on walk, Bai Huang leads her under a bridge and kisses her. This time, she indulges him.
Yue-ying’s major issue with Bai Huang is that he’s nobility while she used to be a prostitute in a brothel. She doesn't think she’s good enough for him. He's also a known wastrel and she thinks he'll soon get tired of the chase and abandon her.
Meanwhile, back to the murder where Yue-ying and Bai Huang discover that the murdered woman might have stumbled across a smuggling ring who specializes in trafficking children. Miyung is accused because she was seen at the festival with the murdered lady and she may have killed the smuggler found in the water.
As Yue-ying gets to know Bai Huang, she realizes he's actually a studious young man who mostly spends his time preparing for the civil servant exam. His main hobby is gambling, which he is actually addicted to, but he keeps the demons at bay by only laying down a set amount of money and going once a week.
The author doesn’t skim over Yue-ying’s past, either. Her first time with Bai Huang is filled with anxiety and fear and she doesn’t have a romance novel orgasm. Bai Huang is actually very patient with her and allows her to get comfortable with herself before furthering their intimacy.
The murder is actually just a background for their romance and courtship, though they do investigate the murder together and catch the killer. Yue-ying pulls her own weight and doesn’t just follow Bai Huang around.
I thought the whole thing with their differences in status was a little glossed over. Bai Huang is nobility, while Yue-ying is a servant. Huang’s dad would disown him if he married her. And yet this problem was solved quite easily. I would have liked to see more angst about it.
I really liked the romance between Yue-ying and Bai Huang because the slow progress and development of their relationship was well-written. Yue-ying doesn’t just rush into Bai Huang’s arms. There wasn’t a moment where I was like, “Hurry up already,” even though the romance is indeed a slow burn.
I really enjoyed this book. I give it 4 out of five.