And kudos to Harlequin for giving this one a lovely cover. And the spine! It says "Tang Dynasty China" and not "Regency"! Readers of historical romance know how freaking awesome this is.
(Yes, I know, lots of posts this week. It's NaNoWriMo - I should be doing that, so of course all I want to do is write blog posts. Argh.)
The book takes place in China, during the Tang Dynasty. Ai Li has run out on her arranged marriage before she's even met Li Tao, the man she's supposed to marry, because she has learned that he has been plotting against her father and may have been responsible for the death of one of her brothers. Now she's got to get back to her family so that she can tell them what she has learned and hopefully get them to support her decision not to marry Li Tao. Unfortunately, Li Tao has sent his warriors after her. Ai Li has her butterfly swords and she definitely knows how to use them, but she's never had to fight for her life before.
Luckily, she meets a barbarian warrior who decides to help her even though he's got troubles of his own. Ryam has spent his entire life never really belonging anywhere. Now he's on his way back to his leader to report that he may have gotten all of his men killed, traveling in a land where he is considered barely better than a stray dog.
With no one else to trust, Ai Li asks Ryam to be her bodyguard, and he reluctantly agrees. They start to develop feelings for each other as they travel together, but he's still just a barbarian and she's higher ranking than Ryam suspects. Even after they part ways, they can't forget about each other.
Ai Li is shocked to learn that her father isn't really surprised by any of the news she brings and wants her to marry Li Tao anyway. The more she's around him, the less he seems like the father she remembers, and she leaves to go visit the brother that always supported her the most, in the hope that he can change their father's mind. On the way, she meets Ryam again, and, despite the huge potential for trouble and the shame it would bring Ai Li and her family, they finally succumb to the feelings that had been building between them. Sort of. Well, the rest comes later.
Anyway, things start off a bit rocky with Ai Li's brother, but he eventually agrees to help them as much as he can. Ai Li and Ryam leave to go see Ryam's leader and possibly lead a new life together. However, Ai Li misses her family, and Ryam knows that, although he's lived his whole life without roots, that isn't the life for her. Ryam and Ai Li's budding relationship starts to fall apart, and then Ai Li is kidnapped by Li Tao. Ryam attempts to ride to her rescue, but he's outnumbered. In the end, although Ai Li agrees to marry Li Tao willingly in exchange for Ryam getting to go free, Ryam stays to fight Li Tao while Ai Li and her father watch. Ryam wins, and Ai Li's father finally decides to approve of them being together.
It's a historical romance that's not set in a European county or America - how cool is that? Yes, I know I've already said it, but it needed to be said again.
I liked Ai Li. (Although, quick tangent, did anyone else find it odd that, immediately after Ryam started calling her Ailey, the passages from Ai Li's perspective also called her Ailey?) I was a little surprised by the limits of her fighting skills, but I suppose I shouldn't have been. You see, she's excellent with her butterfly swords, but she's never actually fought real, these-people-are-going-to-kill you battles before. When she sparred against her brothers, they always fought with handicaps. So, it's not surprising that she can't plow through enemies as well as Ryam, although, considering the whole "sparring against people with handicaps" thing, maybe the more surprising thing is that she fought as well as she did. While I thought it was great (and very Beta Hero) that Ryam actually learned from Ai Li's fighting style, which allowed him to survive his battle against Li Tao, it would have been nice if there had been a bit where Ai Li also learned from Ryam. Maybe some tips on fighting physically powerful opponents who aren't handicapping themselves?
The back cover of the book made me think that Ryam would end up being one of those overbearing Alpha Hero types. I used to love that kind of hero, and, when I'm in the right mood, I can still enjoy a book with an Alpha Hero, but the Beta Heroes (or at least not hugely Alpha) have become much more appealing to me. And, another quick tangent, I found a whole list of books featuring Beta Heroes that I'm going to have to go through sometime - oh, happy day!
Ryam turned out to be anything but what I expected. He's alone and not welcome and he knows it. All he wants to do is not make too many waves, stay alive, and make it back to his leader to report his failure, but he's also too honorable of a guy to just turn the other way while Ai Li gets into more trouble than she can handle. He knows enough of the language to get by - he doesn't have to rely on gestures and (ugh) speaking loudly in his own language to communicate, although it helps a lot that Ai Li understands his language. He's not in the least threatened by Ai Li's skill with her swords. His fantastic Beta-ness is almost his downfall, as he tries to make up for the trouble he believes he has caused Ai Li by letting her go, but, of course, things turn out fine in the end.
I found the book to be just the right length while I was reading it, but, now that I think about it, there's so much that I would have enjoyed reading more about: the rest of Ai Li's family (her grandmother sounds awesome), life in Tang Dynasty China, Princess Miya and Adrian, just for starters. It's too bad Lin's story "The Taming of Mei Lin" isn't available in a print version, or I would snatch it up. I'm really looking forward to her next book, The Dragon and the Pearl. This book is definitely a keeper.
Sorry, there's only one thing on the list that's a historical romance with an Asian setting, and it's just a short story. If you know of any more, please, please list them in a comment - I'd love to know about them, and I know I'm not the only one.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Dragon Lovers (anthology, book) by Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Karen Harbaugh, and Barbara Samuel - This is on the list primarily because of Karen Harbaugh's story, "Anna and the King of Dragons." If you crave another romance set in an Asian country (this time, Japan in 1650), you might want to try this one out. It stars a Dutch physician and a samurai with a secret.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (live action movie) - Like Lin's book, this movie has action, romance, women who can fight, and men who aren't intimidated by that. Unfortunately, it is also tragic. I'm warning you now, because no one warned me before I went to see it in the theaters. I came out crushed, expecting a Hollywood happy ending until the very end.
- The Twelve Kingdoms (book series) by Fuyumi Ono; The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - No romance here, sorry, but plenty of sword-fighting action, political maneuvering, and strong female characters. Although it's set in a fantasy world, I believe that world is China-inspired. Each book/story arc tends to feature different main characters and often entirely different time periods, but the basic premise is that in this fantasy world that butts up against ours, there are twelve kingdoms each ruled by people who are guided by sacred beings called kirin. Sometimes people from the world of the Twelve Kingdoms are accidentally torn from their world and deposited in ours. One character in the series is a girl who grew up in our world, who learns that she was actually supposed to be born in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms and has now been chosen to be the ruler of a kingdom that has fallen into ruin. Somehow she must survive and figure out what she wants to do and where she really belongs.
- Tempting Danger (book) by Eileen Wilks - This is a paranormal romance in a modern setting, an alternate reality where humans have learned that werewolves and other supernatural beings exist and are still figuring out how to fit them all into their worldview. Lily Yu is a police officer (who I think becomes an FBI agent at some point early in the series) who ends up mated to Rule Turner, the next leader of a werewolf clan. You're probably asking yourself how this book ended up on this list. For those who enjoyed the bits up Chinese culture in Lin's book, as well as Ai Li's strong ties to her family, this book might be a good one to try. Lily is Chinese American, and finds herself uncomfortably at odds with her family when she is mated to Rule - mainly because werewolves don't marry. Like Ai Li, Lily also has an awesome grandmother.