When I realized who would be the main characters in this one, I was all the more so eager to read it. This is the second book in the intriguing The Pingkang Li series set in the Tang Dynasty of China and featuring a combination of murder mystery and romance with the pleasure ward of the capitol city as the backdrop. Mingyu is the enigmatic older sister to the heroine of the previous book and Wu Kaifeng was the intimidating police constable who played his part in solving the murder. They were at odds with each other not just because of their vastly different stations in life, but their personalities and agendas too. Now they are both the leads and their story was all that I could hope for and then some.
Lady Mingyu is the most beautiful and coveted courtesan in the pleasure district living a comfortable life at the Lotus Palace and from everyone’s perspective she should be pleased with her place at the top of the food chain in her sphere. With her sister freed and happily married, with her own bond price way beyond her means, and with the new arrival to the city of her long time protector who has done more than hint that he wants her for his concubine, she grows worried about her future chance of freedom and feels loneliness. She yearns for freedom, but that is beyond her means with General Deng’s return.
Constable Wu Kaifeng gazes from afar on the beautiful Mingyu. He knows she hates him for his part in her arrest and interrogation the year before and he knows that she hides behind a mask using men for her advantage, but he can’t stop yearning. Kaifeng is under a lot of pressure now with someone higher up pushing to have him removed and he needs to be extra careful about how he does his job. His latest murder case will tax him sorely to stay professional. Mingyu sends for him because she has discovered the body of her lover General Deng. She is well aware that she is a suspect, but he doesn’t know what to make of her new attitude toward him. Is she planning to use him because she did commit the murder or because she is afraid of being accused and interrogated or is she telling the truth?
Mingyu learns that her reprieve of not being sold is short lived. Deng is gone, but now ‘Mother’ has a new man, a Palace Investigator, who wants her. He has wanted her since he was a student and has followed her activities closely. Mingyu sees him as a stalker and someone who just wants to ‘collect’ her and hide her away. She must tread carefully though because he has made it clear that he hates Kaifeng and will make things hard for him during the investigation. Mingyu hides her need for Kaifeng from everyone not out of shame, but necessity. He doesn’t understand what she sees in him and is suspicious that she is just using him, but in reality, it is because he is the first person to see and like the real her.
The machinations of the inspector, the plotting of Mingyu’s protectoress, the intrigue surrounding the murder all tighten the danger and tension for Mingyu and Kaifeng. Their relationship is forbidden and heartbreaking because it doesn’t stand a chance, but it soon becomes a weapon used to harm them both. In the end, they must solve the murder and use their wits to stay alive, but it is something more- something even harder still- that is required for a chance at happiness.
I cannot shower enough praise on the author for this book and the rest of her stories. Her command of the historical background, rich and full characters and their stories, and twisting plot paths is so good. I always feel like I’m really there and my emotions are always engaged. She does so well with the forbidden romance and writing the couple out of the corner that seems so hopeless without compromising the realism of the time. This particular series is set against the background of the Chinese Geisha culture and it is so artistically beautiful without compromising the seedy reality of life behind the scenes for those who live in the pleasure palaces.
Mingyu is a beautiful, talented courtesan who is a prize hostess for the rich nobles and students who sit in her salons as she pours their tea and wine, sings, plays music, discusses poetry, art, and politics of the day. She is everything refined, subtle and graceful- the opposite of her love interest, Kaifeng. She tended to hide and deny her own emotions and desires, but it made sense in this instance. She was afraid to step out on faith because people who are sold by their own parents and owned by others tend to not trust in concepts like love and happiness.
Kaifeng is a bluntly honest, simple man who others see as a brute and are afraid of him. He has a past that has taught him to push his emotions into a box. He has had to work hard for everything he has and it is all precariously close to being taken away by the whim of a more powerful, vindictive man. Yet for all this, he sees through all the artifice that surrounds Mingyu and appreciates the woman under the cosmetics, silks and jewels. He is protective and gentle, but always honest about what he wants even when she cannot be honest with herself.
Their attraction is acted on and it is truly passionate. They both consider a relationship hopeless and even dangerous, but can’t help seeking each other out. This is not one where trite words or actions are tossed out because these are two realistic, jaded people. I loved watching this relationship develop as they worked slowly, but surely to solve the ticklish murder mystery.
The mystery was not an easy one which is what I liked. I had no idea who did it or even why up until the end.
The presence of the characters from the previous book were a wonderful inclusion. I loved seeing how Yue-Ying and Bai Huang are doing along with his precocious sister Wei-Wei. I hope she gets a book too maybe even with Wu Kaifeng’s magistrate friend. I think she’d be like the Nancy Drew of Ancient China.
All in all, I enjoyed immersing myself in this book and recommend it and the series to those who enjoy historical romantic suspense in a spicy opposites attract romance with a cunning mystery and a gorgeous Asian historical backdrop.
My thanks to Net Galley for the chance to read this book in exchange for an honest review.