The Chick: Chen Ji Yue. Desperate to save her family from the poorhouse, she's determined to use all the wits at her disposal to ensure she gets chosen as the new Empress of China during the Festival of Fertility - even if it means kicking a man out of her palanquin and lying about it to the Festival authorities
The Rub: The odds are stacked against her - she's poor, she's average-looking, and the Master of the Festival is none other than the scoundrel she forced out of her palanquin!
Dream Casting: Ziyi Zhang.
The Dude: Sun Bo Tao. As the close childhood friend of the new Emperor, he's placed in charge of the 60 or so women competing to become members of the Imperial Harem.
The Rub: He soon starts to develop feelings for one of the concubines, but besmirching a virgin who belongs to the Emperor is a capital offense.
Dream Casting: Daniel Dae Kim.
Ji Yue: I will be empress!
Bo Tao: Ha, fat chance!
Ji Yue: Who are you supposed to be?
Bo Tao: The hero - that's why I'm manipulating events around you, fondling you against your wishes, and watching you endure a humiliating physical exam because I'm horny.
Ji Yue: Oh, right. As you were. Wow, life as a concubine sucks!
Bo Tao: Life would me would suck a lot less. Let's get it on - while protecting your virginity.
Ji Yue: *high on opium* Virginity? Who needs virginity?
Bo Tao: Sweet!
Ji Yue: *sober* Crap! I've ruined our futures!
Bizarrely Benevolent Emperor: Eh, go ahead and marry each other. Why not?
Ji Yue and Bo Tao: HOORAY!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Irresponsible Playboy
1 Ambitious Concubine
60 Backstabbing Bitches
1 Lesbian Three-Way Peep Show
1 Evil Mutha
Several Evil Eunuchs
1 Illegally-Lotioned Labia
1 Date Rape
The Word: Oh my, but this book was a silly read. I mean, I didn't really know what I was in for when I picked up my first Harlequin category novel, that had been languishing on my TBR ever since I won it at RWA 2009, but it wasn't quite this level of silliness - and disturbing silliness, I might add. While at RWA last year, Jade Lee (who is actually rather awesome in person) explained that Harlequin never did another Chinese historical after this one, and while I can't presume to know the reasons behind the publisher's choices, I will say that The Concubine is probably not the best representation for Chinese historical romances.
Sun Bo Tao is widely regarded as the mooching slacker BFF of the newly-crowned Emperor. He's a man with no family, no money, no prospects, who prefers to live off the largess of his Imperial buddy. However, after he and the Son of Heaven get into an argument, the Emperor makes him the Master of the Fertility Festival - a China's Next Top Concubine type of event where the Emperor has to choose his Empress and traditional twenty-seven concubines. Bo Tao's not looking forward to babysitting 60 bitchy virgins.
Anyway, he bums a ride on a passing palanquin to get to the Forbidden City, unaware the palanquin's intended for one of the concubine-wannabes and that a man's presence in the vehicle will disqualify her from the running. However, Bo Tao, sensitive prince that he is, sees the girl through the palanquin's curtains, realizes she's poor and average-looking, and immediately refuses to give a shit because he figures she hasn't a got shot anyway.
However, Chen Ji Yue, whose participation in the Fertility Festival is her family's last chance of financial survival, won't be defeated so easily. Raised by her mother to compensate for her average looks with her above-average smarts, she kicks Bo Tao out of her palanquin anyway and lies her way out of the scandalous situation in order to stay in the running.
Now, the main conflict of the novel is that Bo Tao, who supposedly develops feelings for Ji Yue, cannot act upon them because all of the concubines officially belong to the Emperor unless they're expelled from the Festival, so deflowering an Imperial virgin is akin to stealing from the Emperor and is considered treason. Ji Yue, meanwhile, needs to become Empress to feed her family, which means she has to beat out 59 other backstabbing girls and Bo Tao's sexy presence is one distraction she just doesn't need.
Now, props go to the author for an unconventional historical setting. Colourful and vivid, it was very interesting to read an historical that, while similar in some respects to British historicals (societal pressures and prejudice against women) is also so different. It also provides an excuse for rarely-used euphemisms for penis - in this case, "dragon organ" and "jade stalk."
However, an interesting and well-developed setting can't make up for subpar characters and silly plotting. It doesn't help that our "hero" (note the use of quotation marks) is a bit of a sleaze. First, he nearly ruins the heroine's chances for no reason other than the fact that he doesn't want to walk to work.
Then comes a squeamish and unintentionally funny scene where the concubines are lined up to endure a physical examination. Cosmetics are strictly prohibited and those who are caught are brutally hosed down and dismissed from the Festival. Ji Yue, near the end of the line, is terrified because she fudged the rules and applied a perfumed cream to her no-no special place, forgetting that part of the examination involves the Traditional Hymen Role Call.
Naturally, Bo Tao is there to "observe" the "examination" - particularly Ji Yue's. What a scamp! And he very kindly offers Ji Yue the opportunity to hide the scent of her cream naturally - by allowing him to play with her boobies. I'm not really certain about the practicality of that, and after a few minutes, neither is Bo Tao, who then directs his attentions directly to the pertinent area with his fingers, exclaiming (direct quote): "There is so much cream here!" It should be noted that he continues to refer to the way her "sweet cream flows" for the rest of the novel.
He then proceeds to enchant Ji Yue with other romantic acts, such as taking her up to a secret tree house to watch three harem ladies getting it on - ostensibly it's to reveal the sorry life of being a concubine but really it's to score free nookie.
And finally, when all is said and done, when Ji Yue finally loses her virginity, it's the closest I've ever personally read a scene come to date rape. In fact, I'm pretty sure it would count as date rape. After the halfway point, Bo Tao rescues Ji Yue from some corrupt eunuchs who had force-fed her opium in order to hand her over to horny Dutch envoys. Stoned out of her gourd, I guess Ji Yue has some sort of romantic epiphany and begs Bo Tao to make love to her - and he does. It's all very romantic, especially the sparkling lights that Ji Yue hallucinates during the act and the ultimate horror she experiences when she realizes only after the fact that she lost her virginity and signed her death warrant and destroyed her family's honour.
At the heart of it, this scene struck me as rape because when it happens Ji Yue is drugged and Bo Tao is sober. Yes, Ji Yue initiates the romantic encounter, but her horror after the act as well as her hallucinations during the act indicate that the effects of the drug removed her ability to grasp the consequences of her actions and give informed consent.
Meanwhile, Bo Tao is as sober as a monk and knows full well a) that Ji Yue is drugged (direct quote: "You are not yourself, Ji Yue. They gave you opium.") and b) if she's caught without her virginity, she will take the blame and most likely die for it. He is completely aware of the disadvantage Ji Yue is under, but one kiss from her seems to makes him lose his senses. Know what actually makes you lose your senses? OPIUM. If that's not rape, then at the absolute very least it is sexual exploitation. How romantic!
That being said, Ji Yue's not well-developed as a character either. For someone we are told is smart, politically savvy, and very ambitious, she comes to the Festival incredibly naive. She's trapped in a palace with 60 other girls competing for 28 spots (one of which is the post of the freakin' Empress of all China), and yet Ji Yue's surprised they can't all be girlfriends, braid each other's hair and have ticklefights. Also, a lot of her "political" actions to ingratiate herself with the Dowager Empress don't seem to make sense - one scene where Ji Yue admits to having a candy addiction to placate the Empress still has me scratching my head.
While this book ultimately failed to impress me, with its weak heroine, sleazeball hero, and exploitative love scene, I will admit that the change of setting was interesting and did make me wish for more romance novels set in historical China. I still love me some British historicals and likely always will, but I'm also a fan of Japanese and Chinese history and having romances based in that culture would be a welcome change - which has me mighty interested in Jeannie Lin's upcoming novel Butterfly Swords, which is being published in October 2010. By Harlequin.