I’ve been reading, but not reviewing — what’s new? So here’s a catch-up post about some books that I’ve read, all as Advance Reader Copies, and enjoyed recently.
The second book set in the Pingkang Li, the pleasure quarter of the Imperial City, this is another terrific Tang Dynasty historical romance. These books are mysteries, as well as romances, which means I get to see the main characters working together to find a solution (always something I value in romance, because it lets me see that they really do make good partners). Wu, the constable, and Mingyu, the valuable pleasure hostess, met and clashed over the murder in the first book, The Lotus Palace (which I also really liked). There’s already attraction and rather grudging respect between them after that, which is where they pick up in this book. Mingyu finds the body of her murdered patron, so once again she is a material witness and a potential suspect.
In all of Lin’s books, I love the rich historical detail, the gentle introduction of necessary information, and the lyrical, slightly formal language — these elements work together to create a world that I love to visit. The rigid social structure and harsh laws of the time and place are a wonderful setting for challenging romantic involvements with real external conflict, and yet every relationship is different. Her heroes and heroines are indeed “heroic,” in the sense that they are good people a reader WANTS to see rewarded with a happy ending, but they come from all walks of life and levels of society.
I was glad that the previous book set up this relationship; it gave it a complexity from the beginning that served the story well. It takes a lot for Mingyu to find her way to Wu, and for him to accept that a relationship with her is something to which he can even aspire. I appreciated how difficult this was for both characters and what it took for them to come together with love and trust.
I liked seeing some of the characters from previous books make a re-appearance — not just cameo bits, but giving Mingyu a family (through her sister’s marriage) of enjoyable characters. I have hopes that the third Pingkang Li mystery will feature as heroine a character I’ve become fond of in the previous books; I’ll be reading it as soon as it’s available, I’m sure.
Sarah Mayberry is another go-to author for me; I’ve enjoyed every book by her that I’ve read. This one (self-published, as opposed to fitting in a category line) is special. Maggie is a great heroine — she’s smart, funny, even sexy; she owns a bookshop and is making a success of it. But she’s never had an orgasm, and she’s starting to think that she needs to see a doctor about it. Her thoughts about that, and her hesitation, are portrayed very believably. So before going that route, she takes the huge risk of seeking sex with a stranger, a man she thinks is both a great lover and interested in sex with no strings. Rafe is a tattoo artist and business entrepreneur; he is still hurting over a bad break-up, but he can’t help being intrigued by Maggie’s problem and attracted both to her and to the idea of being the one who can help her.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot and characters, because they are delightful to discover — I was REALLY glad that I read this as an ARC and had no idea what to expect. (I will say that I’m glad to hear that Mayberry is planning books for the secondary characters, too.) But I do want to point out that this is more explicit sexually than Mayberry’s Harlequin Super Romances, and that’s definitely a strength of the book. Writing an anorgasmic character is a real challenge, and writing a sexual relationship that helps her overcome her condition is a HUGE challenge. It can’t be a book about the magic wang, and it shouldn’t be a book where the heroine’s condition turns out to be “no big deal.” I would hate it to be a book about how she can only experience sexual pleasure with this one guy, and yet once they have been together, you can’t really put her with anyone else and expect romance readers to accept it. The way Mayberry solved this dilemma, and they way she shifts the story from being about sexual compatibility to emotional, is brilliant, in my opinion.
Deanna Raybourn’s new historical romance is primarily set in and around Damascus in the 1920s. Our heroine, Evie, is an aviatrix engaged in trying to fly across the seven ancient seas. Evie thinks she’s a widow, because her estranged husband is supposed to have been on the Lusitania when it went down, but early in the novel she receives clues that perhaps Gabriel isn’t dead; these clues lead her to Damascus and start her questioning everything that happened in her marriage and its demise.
How am I not going to love a book about a 1920s woman flying an airplane? I mean, anyone who knows me knows I’d be all over this book. And I really did enjoy it. As with Raybourn’s previous novel (set in Colonial Africa), some readers may have issues with how she has appropriated the indigenous culture to serve as a setting for the romance of a white couple. I think she has done a pretty good job of showing the indigenous people as capable and deserving of self-rule, as well as showing them as unique and interesting individuals rather than just types. In my view, she depicts aspects of the culture(s) as a white visitor would encounter them, but also with sensitivity. I did have some issues with one big piece of the story, which I won’t spoil, but on balance it didn’t ruin the book for me. This is an adventure love story, and the heroine gets to do her share, and that’s a win for me.