by Jeannie Lin, historical (2010)
Harlequin Historical, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-373-29614-9
Butterfly Swords is an interesting historical romance because it is set in China during the Tang Dynasty. That will be about 758 AD. Don't worry too much about getting culture shock, though, Jeannie Lin writes with an accessible sensibility more typical of that of a romance author rather than, say, James Clavell or Eric V Lustbader.
Princess Ai Li, the wielder of the swords in the title, is supposed to marry Li Tao, the second most powerful man in China after her father the Emperor. However, she discovers that Li Tao is planning some mischief, and organizes a disruption to her upcoming nuptial. Things get... complicated, let's just say, and it just happens that the foreign devil Ryam is at the right time and the right place to come to her rescue. She decides to have him accompany her back to Changan, the capital city, and he does so despite his misgivings.
This is a road trip story, and a rather familiar one at that, as I've read variations of this theme in Scotland and the Wild West frontiers of America. But there is enough historical flavor to make this story uniquely Chinese, although there are also concessions to accessibility for folks unfamiliar with Chinese culture. Ai Li, for example, is addressed as Ailey in this story. I can't help feeling though that Ai Li displays some principles and beliefs that would be more at home today than in the eighth century. But this is Harlequin Historical, the home of medieval warrior princesses spouting pacifist principles and English earls embodying modern day democratic values, so maybe I shouldn't be too surprised by the occasional contemporary element in this historical romance.
The narrative is clean and engaging, with the pacing never flagging from start to finish. The characters, however, are tad one-dimensional. Ai Li doesn't deviate too much from the spirited heroine who spends most of her time in a boyish disguise that fools nobody. Ryam is even more of a cipher: he serves as a protector to Ai Li, but I know very little about him or even why he loves Ai Li. The heroine is definitely the stronger drawn character in this story. Still, Ryam gets to best Ai Li in sword play despite the fact that she was trained in using her swords from experts, so he gets to shine a bit here, if only because of gender conventions in a romance novel, heh.
The characters could have been more interesting, but the story is good enough to entertain me. As I've mentioned, the author writes in an engaging style and the story builds itself up nicely to the dramatic denouement. I'm still wondering at the ease in which the Emperor eventually accepts that his daughter is shacking up with a white foreign devil, but hey, a happy ending is good. Butterfly Swords is not going to be a historically authentic epic tale - the historical details are there, but the characters do not always behave like people of their time - but for a quick breezy read, this one will do just fine. And as a debut effort, this one is actually an impressive show of hand. I'm intrigued about discovering what the author will do from here onward.
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