Why I read it: Not Quite a Husband by this author was listed on NPR’s The Best Romance Novels. I’ll save my opinion on that one for another time, but I mention it because that book led me to this one.
Library or Buy? I own it on kindle.
Sex factor: Racy
Mild (sex is described as “they made love”, fewer than 3 scenes)
Racy (specific body parts are mentioned, orgasm potentially referenced but not in detail, fewer than 5 scenes)
Hot (includes oral sex, detailed description of genitalia and orgasm)
Orgasmic (lots of graphically described sex, over 5 scenes)
Music while you read the review
[Before we get into the review lets address the prequel. Many reviews insist it is fundamental. It is not. The prequel is an entertaining novel that focuses on the childhood and formation of the main characters but both can be read as stand alones. Some details are lost or less impactful in MBE (the heroine’s martial arts training, the complexity of why she has a nemesis, what hero endures as a child) but the relationship between heroine/hero is dealt with exclusively in MBE.]
Heroine, Catherine, is 26-28 year old cis female, born and raised in China to Chinese mother and English father. Hero, Leighton, is 29 year old cis English male, born and raised in England. H/h first meet as spies for their respective countries in Chinese Turkestan in 1883. There is a degree of deception on both their parts, which I know is a trigger for a segment of romance readers. While they did lie about gender, nationality, intentions and withheld their names, I didn’t see this as detracting from their dynamic. Eight years later, they meet again, with a few complicating factors.
This is one of the first novels, romance or otherwise, that I’ve read where a man “takes care” of a woman not through violence, wealth or physical prowess but through tenderness, attention and domestic tasks. YES!
“Every time they stopped, he saw to the horses. In the evening he hunted, cooked, and did the washing up afterward. The next morning he packed everything to get them back on the road.”
AND why would it be otherwise? As the heroine points out…
“Why should I lift a finger for a man, before he has taken the trouble to save my life?”
There were complaints about level of heroine’s martial arts ability, contrived nature of conflict with nemesis, etc. I’m usually intolerant of convoluted plots but that wasn’t an issue for me in this novel. The prose is beautiful and there are many remarkable details of place, culture, and historical context. These individuals, the places that shaped them, and how they engaged with one another is what mattered to me.
Feminist Romance Novel?
Bedchel-Wallace Test: Barely squeaks by on this one. There is dialogue between two named female characters, but not of any depth.
Character Complexity: Heroine is a woman of sadness and fire (as described by the hero) and has suffered the loss of many loved ones. As a result she is lethal and insecure. Seemed to grow in confidence but last interaction with her step-father indicates otherwise (“would that I had been a better daughter to you”)
Comprehensive: Chinese culture and history, as well as gender norms are addressed in important ways. Some of my favorites:
“Whether by temperament or by the requirement to be amiable, women talked…”
“A woman was unlikely to rival a man in brute strength. But her inner force…needed not be inferior to a man’s.”
“Unlike her mother, she (heroine) didn’t need a man to protect her. But she wanted Leighton (hero) by her side.”
Sexual Pleasure: Sex is rendered “poetic”, not in detail (which is fine). It seems a stretch to say that heroine is a protagonist of her sexual pleasure.
“By the time he at last joined their bodies together, she was a mindless cauldron of lust. An entire storehouse of black powder that needed only the least spark to detonate. How he ignited her.”