August 26, 2014


I'll admit that I'm not familiar with this author's more popular work in the historical romance genre. I ran across this book on NetGalley and didn't realize it was a prequel, either. This is another example of an author independently publishing a work. In this case, the novel is the backstory for a previously published mass marked produced novel.

Reader, this is very definitely not a romance, nor is it speculative fiction, and while it was listed as YA in the catalog, likely because the main characters were nine and eleven when the story opens, it's not for kids that age, definitely, and it's not really marketed to young adults. I'd say it's something of a crossover novel, appropriate for older teens who enjoy historical fiction, and adults. It's a two-hanky read, too, by the by.

Summary: Two stories, two lives unspooling on either side of the world. In 1873 Peking, the nine-year-old daughter of a favored concubine finds a photograph of a foreigner in her mother's things -- which means that the foreigner is maybe someone important... especially since the Chinese woman in Western clothes in the picture is her mother. Though her Amah reminds her to mind her own business, Ying-ying knows better than to ask her beautiful and busy mother about something she's snooped to she's left with terrible questions about who she is, and her precarious place in the world. Meanwhile, in England, eleven-year-old Leighton discovers there's more than he ever understood, to his father's relationship with his old friend, Herb. Observation lends a rapidly maturing Leighton insight into his mother's frequent visits to an elderly relative, visits on which she takes his dark-haired baby brother, but never blond-haired Leighton. Understanding the truth behind the secrets in his world reveals both more joy and more pain. Outside pressures eventually cause the family to implode and with a single gunshot, Leighton's world blows apart. Now that his father is gone and he's driven his mother away, Leighton is left with an uncle whose goal is to crush Leighton's will... what is he supposed to do now?

Adrift without the protection of her beautiful mother, in Peking, Ying-ying loses her importance -- and her identity. All that is left is survival and her own two hands, and a mysterious secret society. In England, Leighton, isolated and locked away, plots to disappear. Two survivors, bruised from the beating of the world. Two lushly detailed lives, set against the backdrop of history, strive and struggle and fail and finally succeed -- and just barely miss intersecting. This was both a beautiful and a frustrating book for those reasons.

Peaks & Valleys: This is a novel which is difficult to characterize. I don't love how it ended, but knowing that it's a prequel to an already written novel helps to make more sense of it. While the ending is not a cliffhanger in the traditional sense of the word, you will NOT be left with a satisfying feeling of "yep, that story's done," when you're finished reading. You'll be left with the unflinching faces of two young, bruised people, picking themselves up once again, and going on their way. Be WARNED. Yet, the writing is compelling. The pacing is slow and expository, and gives a lot of history and motivation for the way the characters engage.

This book was described as "Crouching Tiger meets Downton Abbey." Well...not so much. If you're expecting dowagers and dandies, you won't find them in this novel, and there's less of the Crouching Tiger stuff than many might want, except near the very end. More on that in a moment.

This is a very intensely detailed, lyrically written book, and gives a wonderful account of the lives of the characters. (Here's a sample of the first two chapters from the author's website.) It is, however, stark and dark about the tragedies that took place behind the scenes of this time of opportunity and exploration in Britain, and this precursor to the end of the Chinese dynasties. A real positive is Leighton's accepting attitude towards his father, and his unchanged love for he and his "uncle" Herb. Ying-ying's place as an ornament in society - to simply accompany a man - is also correctly specific to the time. Societal mores constrict everyone - and the appearance of evil can get you into trouble even if you've done nothing wrong. These are simply the sad realities with which the characters live

While care is taken to raise neither country or culture above the other, I can't help but feel there's a tiny bit of exoticizing going on. Western society tends to be a little hyperfixated on the idea of concubines and harems and geishas - and I kind of wished that Ying-ying had been a little awkward or anything but blazingly beautiful, even as a child, but if her appearance received undue emphasis, it was because she is biracial. The other less believable cultural clue was the martial arts and fighting; I rolled my eyes at the "Crouching Tiger" bits; I don't know much about how many martial arts aficionados there would have been just hanging out at the end of the Quing Dynasty, but the fight scenes felt a tiny bit over the top for me. Of course, I really do know nothing about the average person's level of training at that point, and understand that the author was writing from her research and interests. I think it's just that fight scenes of any sort tend to lose me.

A final quibble is, of course, the cover of the novel. The woman in the Western strapless formal gown seemed a little odd; who is she? Ying-ying would never have worn a dress like that, and seemed to feel that Western women's dress and Western society as a whole was debauched and disturbing. These are just tiny quibbles against the overall scope of the novel, which is stark and unforgiving - painful, but striking.

You can find THE HIDDEN BLADE by SHERRY THOMAS at online retailers or at the author's website.

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