by Jeannie Lin, historical (2013)
Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29742-9
The Sword Dancer is easily Jeannie Lin's story that resembles a Chinese martial arts movie the most so far. The heroine Wen Li Feng dances with a sword all over the place when she's not running across rooftops, while our hero Zheng Hao Han is a thief-catcher who resembles the typical stoic lawful good hero that practically lives in the genre. I just need to figure out why the hero is called "Han" instead of "Zheng" or "Hao Han", but other than that, thing looks set to go here.
It's 848. Li Feng left her rebel boyfriend and his team because she believes that it is time for her to put to rest some unfinished business when it comes to her family. She doesn't remember much about her family, but what she remembers isn't good. Armed with a jade piece that has been with her for as long as she can remember, she's going to see what she can find. Also, her last outing with her former gang-mates gave her a realization: there is more than meets the eye where her now ex-boyfriend's vendetta with the local corrupt General is concerned, and she may not want to get too involved in this. So off she goes.
As it happens, Han is seeking her and her former gang-mates for that robbery. When the story opens, he tracks her down and she does that sword waving and dancing across walls thing that will no doubt look good when reenacted on screen in slow motion and with the wind machine blowing at full force. What happens next is a cat and mouse chase as Li Feng continues her quest while Han remains doggedly at her tail.
This one is a solid read. The pacing is great, the history and the cultural elements are gorgeously portrayed, and there is plenty of action to go around. There is also a good balance of the faster-paced scenes and the more quiet romantic ones. Li Feng and Han are stock characters when it comes to martial arts stories, but Li Feng is a refreshing change from a typical romance heroine in that she is certainly competent and she also doesn't get weird on me. The author does try to ensure that Li Feng isn't too polarizing by not getting her hands too dirty with icky stuff like homicide and such, but at the same time, Ms Lin doesn't sugar coat the fact that Li Feng doesn't shy away from violence if a situation calls for it. Li Feng can be pragmatic and she has survival instincts - rare traits in a romance heroine.
I also appreciate how the author has her characters behaving like people of their time. Family loyalty and honor are two rigid concepts that saw people of those days behaving in ways that would seem alien or even masochistic today, but the author mostly pulls this off. She falters only late in the story when Han does something that is completely at odds with his personal moral code up to that point, and I don't feel that the author has done enough to show me why that man would do such a thing. Until that point, he is all about following the law, and he should understand that our heroine has to do what she does to redeem the honor of her family.
But no, he turns into a more... Westernized, let's just say, hero and completely screws out the heroine supposedly for her own good. This "for her own good" thing is what gets to me - it makes more sense, to me, that he'd do it because it's his responsibility and he will lose his honor if he doesn't do it. And after that, he backtracks and completely breaks his own code for the heroine. Because the story up to this point has been pretty good in capturing how people of that time would do things, Han's actions at this late point of the story seem horribly out of character to me.
Also, I am puzzled by how these characters - who seem to travel light - can pull out so many disguises in this story. Where do they store those clothes and stuff anyway? No, I don't want to know.
At the end of the day, The Sword Dancer is an enjoyable read with a hero and a heroine that are playing on a level playing field. She's not deliberately placed in a weaker position just because she's the heroine, and I like that. It's just that Han's actions in the later parts of the story feel so off - like something the author came up with just to get some dramatic moments going - that it dampens my enthusiasm considerably by the last page.
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