The Lotus Palace Mysteries, Book 1
Heat Factor: It takes Lord Bai a couple of encounters before he masters Advanced Consent
Character Chemistry: Yue-ying sees right through Bai Huang, and it’s good for him
Plot: A courtesan is found murdered, so a minor lord and a servant from the pleasure quarter team up to crack the case
Overall: This was a fabulous read—gripping mystery, interesting setting, lush writing, great characters—but I am conflicted about the relationship.
Bai Huang is a young man about town—drinking, gambling, hanging out with courtesans, writing bad poetry. No one takes him seriously because he doesn’t seem to take himself seriously. He also has a gambling problem. But reader, I am here to tell you that Lord Bai is Up To Something.
Yue-ying is the personal servant of one of the most celebrated courtesans in the pleasure district. Sometimes, she catches Lord Bai watching her, which makes her deeply uncomfortable for several reasons. She has a large birthmark on her face, so she knows she’s not desirable. She’s a servant, and he’s a lord. Her mistress does not appreciate people paying attention to Yue-ying. And she used to work in a not-so-nice brothel, that wasn’t about poetry and refinement, but rather solely about transactional sex, so she’s not super excited about the attention of men. But she does notice that Lord Bai is handsome, and also that he seems to wear his foolishness like a mask.
The two team up when another prostitute is found murdered. Huilan had come to Lord Bai for help leaving the city only the day before, so he feels personally responsible for her death; he enlists Yue-ying because she intrigues him, but also because she knows the gossip of the pleasure quarter intimately.
So the basic plot is that they work together to solve the mystery (which keeps getting more twisty and mysterious).
But what about the love story?
Ok, so their dynamic is that Huang actively seeks Yue-ying out. He really does have it bad for her. And while he is not the fool he pretends to be, he is so fucking obtuse about her reality. On the one hand, he is really privileged and I liked that Lin didn’t shy away from making her hero need to really learn what that means. They are an extreme unequal match (reminder: Yue-ying is a servant, a former prostitute, a peasant, and illiterate), and for the most part Lin handles this part of their relationship pretty well. (There is one particularly gutting moment where Yue-ying scolds Huang and he tells her that she forgets her place. I gasped. Out loud.)
On the other hand, the first time they had sex is horrifying. Now, I am all about characters having bad sex first so that they can have good sex later but I think, for me, this scene was difficult to come back from. I’m going to quote a long passage here:
He continued touching her, soft touches, slow touches. He untied her sash and stroked along her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach. The sensations felt detached from her, as if she were watching Bai Huang treating someone else with such care.
He tried to woo her with his words and the gentleness of his tone, but the more he spoke, the more her ears deafened. She tried to recapture the rush of emotion she’d always felt when they kissed. In the rain and beneath the bridge, while she dug her fingers into his shoulders and her body pressed against him in hunger.
There was none of that same heat or desire now. Finally, she had to close her eyes to block out the room, the bed. Even the sight of Bai Huang leaning over her. It felt like surrender, as if she had lost a battle with herself when she did it.
Here we have Yue-ying dissociating while she has sex with Huang. She says she wants to because she cares for him – but I cannot discount the fact that he has also offered her protection and that she has very few options. Nor can I discount the fact that when she decides to have sex with Huang, she does so sort of as an experiment: can sex be nice with someone who is not a stranger? And finally, Huang thinks that the sex was great! He was a little miffed that she seemed “distant,” but was still really really into it and thinks that she was too.
But here I go again, bringing up the other hand: it’s refreshing to see a relationship develop not because of good sexual chemistry, but despite of terrible sex. Yue-ying doesn’t love the physical part of their relationship but still comes to care deeply for Huang.
Here’s the short version of all of this back-and-forthing. If a book makes me think this much about the nuances of the characters and their interactions with each other, I call that a win.
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Lord and servants (and other unequal matches)