This is the fourth Tang Dynasty Harlequin Historical novel by Jeannie Lin; I’ve read and enjoyed them all, as well as her four novellas. There are things about Lin’s approach to historical romance that I really enjoy, and they are all on display here.
First, I love Lin’s choice of setting and her world-building technique. While I don’t know enough about Chinese historical culture to judge the accuracy of her details, the world she creates feels real and consistent. I’m wary of fetishizing the “exotic other,” but I do find the very “otherness” of the setting attractive — in some ways it’s like reading a fantasy novel, since I have no real yardstick for judging historical accuracy, and yet it is meaningful and real in a different way, because I know it IS history. Lin knows that her readers need to be told everything about the world; there are no short-cuts based on the assumption that readers are familiar with the setting, as we find in some historical romance set in more well-trodden places and times. And yet she skillfully avoid the “info-dump” most of the time, giving the reader just as much detail as needed to figure out what’s going on for the characters, and only including such political, social or economic aspects of the bigger picture as are truly relevant. Even on the rare occasions where I feel like I’m getting a little mini-history-lesson, though, I don’t mind, because the writing is skillful and the details fascinating. Since each of her stories is set in a slightly different time, place, or social milieu, each one gives me a new perspective on this period in Chinese cultural history.
Part of what I love is that, while Lin treats the time and place of her books with reverence, she doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects. She depicts the restrictive roles allowed women, the rigid social divisions between classes, and the harsh systems of government and punishment, and she makes these work as challenges for her characters to overcome. She often depicts characters who are outsiders, often renegades, because of their personal situations or choices; one of the joys of each book is watching the characters’ perspective change to a broader awareness of social injustice.
Like her first novel, the Golden Heart winner Butterfly Swords, the heroine of The Sword Dancer is trained in combat, both willing and able to defend her own honor and person. (The heroines of two novels in between are concubines, a different dynamic.) To own and be able to use a sword makes each of these heroines unusual, but not unheard of, and that creates a space for them in the world that is tenuous and wholly believable. Both are fugitives for much of the book as well. I loved the cross-class dynamic in Butterfly Swords, and the accompanying emphasis on tradition and family honor (I reviewed it for Dear Author here: http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-a-reviews/a-reviews/welcome-change-of-pace/ ) In The Sword Dancer, I appreciated how very much on their own the main characters were, and yet they were each motivated by the loss and absence of family.
Li Feng, the heroine and title character of the book, is very much an outsider. She lost her family when she was young, under clearly suspicious circumstances, and she was raised by a Taoist monk and martial arts master. An orphan girl raised by a naturally solitary man, Li Feng is self-sufficient, resourceful, and possessed of a moral code that is at odds with the laws and authority structure of formal society. She is an outsider, a participant-observer on the fringes and in the shadows.
Han, the hero of the novel, is a thief catcher by trade; he earns bounties by tracking criminals and bringing them to justice. While he has a defined role in the legal system, and a more rigid moral code, his is still a social position that’s in a grey area, doing a job that’s necessary and somewhat appreciated, but at the same time looked down upon and without an avenue for advancement or real formal recognition. When the novel opens, Han is doing his job, pursuing an alleged thief who turns out to be Li Feng. Their very first encounter pits their minds and bodies against each other, in a struggle/dance that becomes the essence of their relationship. He watches her, then chases her; she escapes him, then rescues him. He captures her, but takes care that she’s not mistreated; she escapes. And the pattern persists, as they are drawn together by their separate but intertwined interests. They each find the other compelling in movement, and they are well-matched adversaries; Han is larger and stronger, but Li Feng is fast and flexible, with an agile mind that serves to get her out of situations where physical escape doesn’t work.
This a very active book — there’s a lot of chasing, searching, fighting, fleeing, capturing, and escaping. The loving fits right into that, another physical activity, while the emotional dimension develops and builds through the action, with occasional quiet spaces where feelings can be explored and expressed rather than just experienced. The prose is beautiful, with vivid descriptions and moments of lyrical beauty. Repeatedly, I found myself torn between the desire to move ahead with the compelling story and the desire to go back and savor a particularly fine passage. Indeed, what was meant to be a quick skim of the book for this post turned into a full re-read, because I could not make myself rush or shorten the experience.
These are very general reactions, and I could probably say a lot more, but I want to get this posted and encourage other voices to chime in. I’ll add links below if people want to post their thoughts elsewhere (feel free to call my attention via Twitter or by posting a link in the comments), or you can feel free to post your reactions here in the comments.
Oh, and isn’t that cover gorgeous?!?
Here are Liz’s thoughts over at her blog — you can tell she’s a better literature scholar than I am, because she takes time to use quotes and stuff. It’s a great piece; go read it. http://myextensivereading.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/the-sword-dancer-jeannie-lin/