The Lotus Palace is a historical romance/mystery set in Tang Dynasty China. It is the first in the short but fantastic Pingkang Li Mysteries Series. I adore the setting, the characters, and the delicate way that the issue of consent is handled given the many forms of inequality within the society in which our characters live. This is a slow-paced book, but one that allows a relationship to mature over time in a believable way despite serious obstacles.
Yue-ying is the maidservant for a popular courtesan, Mingyu. They work and live in an establishment known as The Lotus Palace, in the Pingkang li district, an area known for gambling, drinking, brothels, and more expensive houses where highly trained and well-educated women such as Mingyu act as hostesses, entertainers, and companions, both sexual and platonic, to those who hire their services. One of the men who pays court to Mingyu is Bai Huang, a rich and frivolous young man.
When Bai Huang flirts with Yue-ying, she rejects him, because her social status is very different from that of Mingyu, and she is dependent on Mingyu’s goodwill. Yue-ying has a birthmark that makes her ineligible for courtesan training. She was a prostitute until Mingyu saved her, and is anxious not to lose the protection of the Lotus Palace. Yue-ying has strong emotional ties (but not romantic ones) to Mingyu. The nature of these ties is revealed later in the book.
When another courtesan from the Lotus Palace, Huilan, is murdered, Yue-ying and Bai Huang have to work together to solve the mystery of Huilan’s death. The rest of the plot involves the two solving the mystery, falling in love with each other, and attempting to come up with a happy ending for themselves that seems impossible given the disparity in their social status. Along the way, we learn fascinating and often tragic stories about the past lives of characters. Luckily there’s a lot of humor and visual beauty to balance the angst. The explanations of the world, and of the different levels of status were integrated into the narrative in a way that was helpful but not a lecture, which I appreciated because I’m not well educated on the history and culture of Tang Dynasty China.
The book excels at description. Here is Yue-ying’s description of Constable Wu, who is also investigating Huilan’s murder:
His height was exaggerated by his build, which was long and lean. His facial features were elongated as well, with an eagle’s nose and high cheekbones that tapered down to a sharp chin. He wasn’t an attractive man. He wasn’t entirely ugly, either, but if she had to choose – she would say his face fit his position. It was an intimidating face, not one that evoked pleasant thoughts.
The book also excels at pointing out the cultural barriers to detective work. For instance, solving a mystery is difficult in a culture that believes that speaking of the dead can disturb their spirits. No one wants to talk too much about Huilan, either because they are hiding something or because they consider it to be disrespectful and dangerous to the departed. In addition, Huilan’s social status is sufficiently high for the constable to investigate, but not high enough for anyone above the constable to take an interest in the case.
The trickiest thing this novel has to navigate is the issue of consent. Mingyu is owned by the Lotus Palace. Yue-ying was previously the ‘property’ of a brothel. Yue-ying is not technically a slave, but she is completely dependent on the Lotus Palace for her survival. When Yue-ying rejects an early advance by Bai Huang, she assumes she will be beaten, not apologized to Technically, Yue-ying is much more free than Mingyu, but practically speaking she is almost as trapped as Mingyu because of her birthmark, her lack of education and status, and her lack of family.
For these reasons, it’s important that the romance go slowly. Bai Huang hides his true drive and intelligence for political reasons (he’s got a Scarlet Pimpernel vibe going on). Yue-ying hides her true thoughts and emotions in order to guard her physical and emotional safety. It takes time for the two to be their true selves with each other.
It also takes time for Bai Huang to understand why Yue-ying doesn’t want to be his concubine (her class makes marriage impossible, and a marriage was arranged for Bai Huang years ago although it has not yet taken place). Near the end of the book, Yue-ying is still refusing to become Bai Huang’s concubine despite the fact that this would be a common and, to her, beneficial arrangement. She tells herself:
There should be no question. She was a maidservant and, before that, a prostitute. She was poor and she had nothing, while Bai Huang had everything. But while Mingyu’s reasoning had spoken of an arrangement of security, Bai Huang spoke only of love.
Mingyu was also speaking out of love for her. Mingyu’s love was honest, refusing to ignore all the realities of their lives and circumstances. Bai Huang’s love was blind.
She also points out to Bai Huang that love is not an advantage should she become his concubine:
Quiet, obedient concubines can fit themselves harmoniously into a household. A jealous concubine, a possessive concubine, soon finds herself cast out in to the streets by a wife. Your wife will have claim to you, Huang, not me. And I would be envious. I would want you so much it hurts like the way it hurts now. But to stay with you, I would bite my tongue and become docile. I would kill these emotions until there was nothing left of me for you to love. And I would resent you for requiring this of me.
On top of all these barriers, Yue-ying is a rape survivor and their first night of sex reflects this. She consents to sex, but is detached throughout the act. When Bai Huang realizes this, he stops initiating sex and instead kisses her a lot, since she genuinely enjoys kissing and other forms of affection. Until Yue-ying is completely comfortable with sex, Bai Huang refrains from making overtures, so that she is the initiator of any activities.
Ultimately, it is only through the intervention of women (Bai Huang’s sister and mother) that a happy ending can be reached. Bai Huang has to come to some hard realizations about the impossibility of splitting his life in two. Although the practice of having a wife and a concubine is usual for men of his class, it simply won’t work given the personalities and emotions of Huang or Yue-ying. It is fortunate that Bai Huang finally turns to his sister and discovers that while he is very intelligent and creative, she is much more so.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m actually more excited to read a novella about Huang’s sister (The Liar’s Dice). Mingyu gets a book as well (The Jade Temptress). The Lotus Palace was moving, romantic, and fascinating. The only reason it gets a B and not an A is that my attention drifted. The same slow pace that makes the romance believable can also make it easy to put the book down and wander off. Additionally, I never fully believed that Bai Huang completely understood the realities of Yue-ying’s world despite his very sincere efforts. Overall, this book was a creative and refreshing historical mystery romance that wasn’t set in, oh, say, Regency England. I very much enjoyed this visit to early China.
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