My Fair Lady in Tang Dynasty China? Yes, please!
In the field of fiction, Jeannie Lin's novels are unicorns. They are the rarest of mythical creatures: Historical Romances set in Tang Dynasty, China. I have always loved Jeannie Lin's romance, and this is among my favorite of her novels. This book is delightful in every way. We have a truly compelling situation, the "My Fair Lady" scenario isn't made on a whim, there is familial honor and duty at stake. There is a wonderful supporting cast, from the spirited maidservant Dao to the irrepressible Bai Shen (OHMIGOD I LOVE HIM), and a love story that builds gradually. There is no insta-love here.
This is truly a fantastic book.
Yan Ling turned to wipe down her already-cleaned table once more when the stranger spoke.
‘I need a woman,’ he mumbled. ‘Any woman would do.’
Fei Long does need a woman, but not in the way you would imagine.
Fei Long is a Tang Dynasty nobleman, and he is a noble man in every sense of the word. He is kind, he is a benevolent master, an obedient son, but an absent one. His father has died, and he has returned home to find it in chaos. Debt collectors are pounding at the door, and to make matters worse, his little sister, Pearl, is nowhere to be seen. She has eloped with their neighbor.
This would be a bad enough situation on its own, but what makes it considerably worse is that his sister is not free to marry. Pearl was supposed to have been elevated to the rank of Imperial Princess, then sent off to marry the far-away Khitan king. A wedding of convenience, one that would ensure the peace of two nations, one that would secure the wealth and honor of the family line.
And now she is eloped to someone else. Fei Long catches up with the lovers, but does not have the heart to force his beloved sister into an unwanted marriage. He lets them go.
His sister had turned to Han because she’d had no one else.
The tension drained out of Fei Long, stealing away his rage. His throat pulled tight as he forced out the next word. ‘Go.’
The two of them stared at him in disbelief.
‘Go,’ he repeated roughly.
Well, fuck, now Fei Long is truly screwed. He doesn't have a sister to deliver to Khitan, but at least his sister is happy.
Now, do you see why Fei Long needs a woman?
Enter Yan Ling.
A 19-year old teahouse maid, down on her luck, hungry day in and out. When the drunk Fei Long mutters "I need a woman" to her, what else is she to think? She throws a pot of tea at him. She regrets it immediately. One impulsive action got her fired, and onto the streets. She begs Fei Long for help, it was HIS fault that she got fired, after all. Fei Long looks at her...and has other ideas.
‘I have a proposal for you.’
‘I know exactly what sort of proposal you mean.’ She shook an accusing finger at him. ‘I don’t care how rich you are, I was right to pour that tea on you.’
Her step quickened. ‘Leave me alone. I may not be learned or wear expensive clothes like you, but I’m a respectable girl. I won’t do...do that.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant.’
Yan Ling is passably pretty. She's got fire in her, a fire that his timid, demure sister lacks. With enough training, her edges sharpened down, Yan Ling could pass as his sister. And let's face it, a life as a royal princess in Khitan is better than a life on the street any day.
A ripple of pleasure ran through her, lazy and warm with promise. She would never need to worry about being cold or hungry again. Her back wouldn’t ache from serving customers from the first light of day to deep in the night.
The training is difficult and tedious. It is no easy feat to be a lady, as Yan Ling soon learns. For example, despite the fact that she has worked at a tea house for years, she doesn't know proper tea etiquette.
‘And when you took the cup from me, you did it with one hand.’
‘Two hands,’ he went on. ‘With a slight bow of your head as you accept the cup.’
Heaven and earth, she didn’t even know how to drink tea properly! She, who had grown up in a teahouse.
And don't even mention the dresses, Jesus Christ! How the fuck does one move properly in those things?!
The cloth pooled around her feet as she tried to move forwards, wrapping about her ankles until he was certain she would topple. Fortunately she didn’t. She kicked at the train, much like—heaven help him—one would kick a stray dog. He raised a hand over his mouth.
‘Are you laughing at me?’
Yan Ling is smart, persistent. She is so innocent, so eager to please. She is truly grateful to Fei Long for bringing her into this whole situation. For the first time in her life, she has friends, she has company, she feels needed.
The last weeks in the Chang household had been the happiest time she’d ever known. She wore the fanciest silks and ate delicious meals from painted plates and bowls.
More precious than that, she had companionship. True companionship that came from the time that was her own.
Fei Long has the fantastic Bai Shen to help her to be a lady. Bai Shen may be a man, but he is an accomplished actor, and he's more *snaps fingers* fa-bu-lous than you will ever be.
‘There are a thousand looks. A hundred gestures. I’ve studied them all.’ He circled his hand with a flourish. ‘The secret is to create the illusion. You don’t need it all. Emphasise certain characteristics and the audience will believe.’
And she'd better succeed in all of this girly shit. There's feminine honor on the line! She can't be outdone by a man!
‘And don’t forget you have one grand advantage,’ he said.
‘What is that?’
He shrugged. ‘You actually are a woman.’
Fei Long is not absent. He has been tutoring her, watching her, seeing her grow in confidence day by day. He has his doubts, he has his fears. There is so much responsibility on his shoulders, but Fei Long is not alone.
‘You don’t need to thank me for anything,’ he said gently. ‘I should be thanking you.’
‘Because we’re in this together,’ she said uncertainly.
He nodded, breathing deep. ‘Together.’
As the days go by, as they encounter more challenges to their lives, as the past catches up to them, will they ever be able to overcome their differences? Will Fei Long be able to overcome his stern exterior--will his need to do what's right destroy the spark of life within the woman he loves?
Fei Long could hear Yan Ling’s laughter just over his shoulder while he sat in isolation, unable to share in it.
He was the only one not in disguise that night, yet he was the one hiding.
When the time comes to deliver Yan Ling to the Khitan, will he ever be able to let her go?
The Setting: AWESOME. Oh my god, if you've ever watched a Chinese drama, you will love this book. We see the city of Changan, vibrant with color.
Wealth was in the red banners cascading from the balconies of the wine-houses and restaurants of Changan. The rainbow bolts of silk in the marketplace. Even the fruit piled in the stalls sparkled like jewels: rosy peaches and startling pink dragonfruit with green-tipped scales.
There is an ample amount of detail, and the Chinese fangirl within me loved all of it. From the Chinese theatres, to the street stalls, to the mansion itself and its furnishings. There is no shortage of the life and color and beauty of Ancient China within these pages.
Yan Ling: I absolutely adore her character, and how she grows. Bai Shen tells her to be a phoenix in the book, and I can see her transformation. From spirited, irreverent teahouse maid, to a demure lady who could pass as a princess, we see every step of her transformation.
Yan Ling starts off being completely in awe of Fei Long, and who can blame her? She is no doormat, but she wants to please him, she wants to do right by him, because he has rescued her from the streets. Yan Ling has so much faith in Fei Long, she completely trusts him.
‘Promise me you’ll stay beside me the entire time.’
His gaze held on to her and she knew then that Fei Long wouldn’t let anything happen. She would do this for him. So he could be proud and think well of her.
Yan Ling grows, but she never becomes weak. She becomes a lady, but she is never cowed. Her feelings for Fei Long grows bit by bit, but she knows it is hopeless, because of where it will all lead.
‘Ah, of course.’ Her throat tightened around the words. ‘The grand scheme, above all else.’
Whatever romantic aspirations Yan Ling has is completely solidified by reality: Yan Ling is not a silly girl, she knows her dream is just a dream.
He felt nothing. None of the unwanted fire within her. Silly girl, why would he?
In the end, we will see clearly that Yan Ling has more strength and bravery within her than we would ever have expected.
Fei Long: A truly admirable character. He is stern and seriously because he has to be. He is never cruel. He strives to do everything correctly in life. He is such an honorable man. So honorable that he could never allow himself to take advantage of his situation to compromise a girl whose life he holds in his hands.
‘I think of you, Yan Ling, more than I should.’ A wave of longing struck him. ‘When I see your face at night, I don’t see the tea girl or the elegant lady. I only see you.’
‘If I acted on these feelings, if I...if I took what I wanted, it would be an abuse of authority. You’re under my care. That was what I meant when I spoke of our positions. I won’t treat you like that.’ His mouth twisted. ‘As if you’re here for my pleasure.’
He sees Yan Ling transform day by day, to be better for him. He feels guilty for making her lose her inner spark.
When she walked into a room, he could no longer see any remnants of the tea girl he’d first met. Occasionally, he would see her doubled over in laughter with Dao or Bai Shen and the sight always sent an inexplicable ache through him. She never laughed that way in his presence.
Yan Ling was exceeding all his expectations—and he hated it.
BAI SHEN: WHY IS HIS NAME CAPITALIZED? BECAUSE HE'S FUCKING AWESOME, THAT'S WHY. Oh, sure, the other characters in the book are awesome, but you don't know fabulous until you've met Bai Shen.
He is not gay. He is an actor in Ancient China, which means that he has to play female characters. And damn, does he do it well. When trouble comes, when a girl doesn't know how to act feminine, who's Fei Long gonna call?
If Yan Ling was to become a princess, or at least pretend to be one, they would need to transform her. He needed someone who was a master at deception.
Meet Bai Shen.
The gentleman was already seated on the couch. His robe was adorned with a brilliant border of maroon brocade and his topknot was affixed with a straight silver pin. He had narrow, handsome features, with dark eyebrows that accented his face in two bold lines.
And what's he gonna do?
He tapped his chest twice. ‘Bai Shen is one of the premier actors of the Nine Dragon theatre troupe and that, dear miss, is not a pretty face you’re making. I can see why Fei Long needs my help.’
He's not only gorgeous, he's not only a fabulous acrobatic actor, Bai Shen is also well-versed in the matters of the heart.
‘Be careful, Fei Long,’ Bai Shen said sombrely.
‘I’m being very careful. I’m taking every precaution when dealing with Tong.’
With a sigh, Bai Shen turned around to continue surveying the perimeter. ‘You fool,’ he muttered. ‘That’s not what I was talking about at all.’
READ THIS BOOK.