Book Source: Net Galley
Disguised as a young man and fleeing from an arranged marriage to her brother’s murderer, Chinese noblewoman Ai Li takes pity on a starving barbarian (i.e., European) mercenary at a roadside tavern and offers him her rice bowl. Under no illusions as to her gender, Ryam is overwhelmed by her beauty and her kindness to a bai gui, (“white devil”). When he discovers the rice is drugged, he rushes to warn her. He finds her beset by bandits. Ai Li is a skilled practitioner of the double sword technique known as “butterfly swords”, but alone she’s no match for a dozen armed men. Despite the effects of the drugged rice, Ryam’s brute strength is enough to tip the scales in her favor, and they escape together.
Impressed, Ai Li enlists his aid. She’s determined to tell her family about her betrothed’s treachery, and she needs an ally she can trust if she’s going to make it alive to their home in Chang-An, the capital of Tang Empire. But there’s more to the matter than Ai Li admits—deep secrets, hidden agendas, and a growing attraction that could get them both killed.
I really wanted to love this book. I long to read romances set someplace other than North America and the British Isles. A romance set in Tang China—a time of unparalleled artistic achievement and innovation, peopled with outrageous characters like Wu Zetian, the only Chinese empress to reign in her own right—how could it fail? Butterfly Swords gives you a taste of the culture and opulence of the period. But every time the setting threatens to sweep you away, the romance yanks you up short.
Yes, I know Butterfly Swords is a romance. Even if it hadn’t said so on the cover, I could tell from the way the hero is far more interested in the heroine’s feminine charms than her rice bowl after he hadn’t eaten in days. If that failed to clue me in, I’d know from the way Ai Li revels in his “masculine scent” (translation: several weeks’ worth of unwashed sweat), from the big sex scene which occurs exactly two-thirds of the way through the book, and the subsequent eighty pages of dithering up to the “dark moment”. Then there’s the heroine’s miraculous ability to perform her sword forms less than a week after breaking her ankle and walking on it for miles, and the hero’s equally miraculous ability to fight drugged and perform drunk. For all its luscious Silk Road window dressing, Butterfly Swords reads exactly like every “Reluctant Bride” medieval romance of the past twenty years.
I also realize romance, like all genre fiction, must follow certain rules above and beyond the HEA—a basic structure and sense of pacing that defines it, comparable to the armature of a statue or the wooden frame on which a painter stretched his or her canvas. But just because I know the structure is there, doesn’t mean I want to see it, anymore than I want to taste the flour and baking soda in a chocolate cake. It’s a mark of a novice.
In Ms. Lin’s defense, she is a novice. Butterfly Swords, a 2009 Golden Heart Award-winning manuscript, is her first published book. This argues the clichés I find so irritating may be the very qualities its editor and other reviewers found attractive—a counterbalance to its “risky” setting. With that in mind, I hope Butterfly Swords succeeds in spite of my misgivings. It may be the only way to convince major publishers to take a chance on unusual settings and multi-cultural characters…and to give Ms. Lin the chance to grow as a storyteller. Critical grousing aside, anyone with guts enough to defy romance conventions and let all the men see through her heroine’s disguise has my vote. The writing, too, shows a lot of promise, and after all, even Nora Roberts wasn’t built in a day.
Verdict: One thumb up, with hope for future books.