Monday, 8 September 2014

#CBR6 Books 93-94: "The Hidden Blade" and "My Beautiful Enemy" by Sherry Thomas

Total page count: 652 pages
Rating, both books: 4 stars

In Beijing in 1873, young Ying Ying discovers that her father is one of the white foreign devils, and while her mother is the pampered courtesan of an important court official, she'll be lucky to ever make a suitable match. Her Amah starts training her in secret martial arts, so she'll have a way to defend and support herself once she grows older.

Over in England, young Leighton Atwood discovers that his parents have secrets, that it wouldn't do for his sinister uncle Sir Curtis to unearth. His mother's monthly visits to a "sick relative" may hold the explanation as to why Leighton's younger brother Marland looks nothing like him, and his father seems a lot more affectionate towards his young photographer friend Herb Gordon than he does towards Leighton's mother. Leighton doesn't know that society disapproves of his father's relationship with his young friend. He listens eagerly as Herb tells of his travels and adventures, about Chinese myths and treasures.

When Sir Curtis comes for a surprise visit while Leighton's mother is away, Leighton's life takes a dramatic turn for the worse. Sir Curtis threatens to commit his younger brother to an asylum for his depravities, and because of this, Leighton's idyllic childhood is shattered with a single gunshot. Herb is forced to leave Starling Manor, and Leighton manipulates his mother and younger brother to flee the country to protect them from Sir Curtis' plots. He alone is left to suffer the intricate cruelty, dreaming of the distant lands Herb is visiting and the day when he too can escape.

Ying Ying and her Amah are taken into the household of her mother's protector, Da-Ren, when her mother dies. It is there that Ying Ying befriends another foreign devil, from faraway England, who works as a language tutor for Da-Ren's sons. She tells him about her suspected parentage, learns that her English adventurer father named her Catherine Blade, and begins to learn English.

In 1883, Leighton and Ying Ying finally meet, in Chinese-controlled Turkestan, never realising that Herb has played an important role in their lives. Leighton is working to gather intelligence for the British, Ying Ying is trying to work off a debt to her foster father, Da-Ren. Their romance is brief, intense and passionate, until they discover that they are enemies, and Ying Ying sends Leighton (whom she believes to be a Persian in the employ of the English) away, with a slow-acting poison she knows will kill him within a week.

So Ying Ying's surprise is great when she arrives in England in 1891, as Catherine Blade, and is introduced to Captain Leighton Atwood, the fiancee of her new acquaintance Mrs. Chase's daughter. Ying Ying is in England to locate two precious Jade tablets for her foster father and has already fought off one painful reminder of her past on the ship on her way to England. Meeting her first and only love alive and betrothed to another is a serious obstacle in her quest for the tablets.

Leighton is just as shocked to discover the mysterious, wild girl who he first met disguised as a Kazack warrior, who left him for dead in the Turkestani desert is in London, speaking near-perfect English and dressed as demurely as any debutante. She left him with physical as well as emotional scars, and Leighton knows full well that she is unlikely to be in England just to connect with her long-lost relatives. Yet he swears he will not get involved with whatever brought her to London, that part of his life is over now.

The Hidden Blade tells the story of Ying Ying/Catherine and Leighton from when they are children in China and England respectively, and unusually for Thomas, gives us their life stories entirely chronologically in more or less alternating chapters. Despite coming from vastly different cultures and parts of the world, their lives have strange parallels, and they are unaware that Herb Gordon is to play a vital part for both of them. Through him, they almost meet in Beijing, once Leighton has managed to escape the clutches of his evil uncle and travel to reunite with his old friend, but fate interferes and they just miss each other. It's a full-length prequel novel to My Beautiful Enemy, and as such not a romance in itself, as the main characters never actually meet.

My Beautiful Enemy is more like Thomas' previous novels, where the narration jumps back and forth between the present and the past. The past involves Ying Ying and Leighton's first meeting in 1883, where they fall in love despite not knowing each other's true identities. I frankly preferred the past portions, some of the 1891-sections got a bit too melodramatic, thanks to Ying Ying's dastardly supervillain nemesis and Leighton's bitchy fiancee. I'm sorry if it comes as a surprise to anyone at all, but Leighton's engagement isn't all that happy, thus facilitating his eventual happy ending with Ying Ying.

Sherry Thomas claims that these books are "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Downton Abbey". Nit-picky that I am, I would like to point out that Downton Abbey starts in 1912, which isn't even vaguely Victorian. Combined, the two novels give a fascinating picture of Ch'ing China and Victorian England. I loved that Leighton, at least for a brief period, has a father in a loving homosexual relationship without this shocking him in any way. He's forced to grow up far too early and the treatment he receives from his uncle is truly awful (Thomas writes extremely creepy villains, see also His at Night). Both Ying Ying and Leighton are great characters, but their prequel stories and passionate first romance entertained me a lot more than the latter part of their romance, where they reunite. I would absolutely recommend reading the two books together. My Beautiful Enemy works on its own, but the story has much more resonance if you've read The Hidden Blade first.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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