The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin

The Jade Temptress (Mills & Boon M&B) - 

Jeannie Lin
I was really looking forward to this book as a light, romantic read - the other books I've read of this author, The Lady's Scandalous Night and The Dragon and the Pearl, while not particularly light, focused a lot on the romance.

The Jade Temptress, make no mistake, is a historical romance, but the emphasis (and, to me, the strongest point) was on the historical.
I was looking forward to this one for another reason: the heroine was a courtesan, not a blushing virgin. I don't mind that plot point, but it gets tiresome, so I wanted a character who took charge in the bedroom, one who wasn't blushing and cluelessly stumbling about. 
The thing is, (and what a lesson that was!), this notion of mine of weaponised femininity was, as many often are, poisonous in its inception.

Mingyu is, indeed, a skilled courtesan. Poems are written about her, men despair over her, powerful warlords vie for her attentions. She knows how to play the game. 
But there is another facet to it, it's not all glamour and female charms. Mingyu is an indentured woman. She belongs to the Madame of the Lotus Palace, sold along with her sister by their mother for a handful of coins. Her training in singing, playing, her clothes, her education, her jewels, all of it was added to the price needed for her freedom.
She had a powerful warlord seemingly enamoured with her, she could (and did) refuse to become his concubine, but she couldn't very well refuse to go to his bed. She needed to turn a profit so she'd be valuable to the Lotus Palace, she needed to court favour so she'd receive gifts to redeem her sister's price and, hopefully one day, her own.

When the book starts Mingyu is headed for a "meeting" with General Deng. What she finds is his headless body. 
She calls for Wu Kaifeng, the man who tried to torture a confession out of her in the previous book in the series. Now, I haven't read that one, but I didn't feel like I needed to have read it to follow this story - of course, now I want to read it!
There is obvious bad blood between Mingyu and Kaifeng. He's pragmatism incarnate. Not susceptible to her charms. Not even touched by enough sympathy for her to keep from torturing her. Because only one thing matters to him: the truth. As a Constable he makes it his life's mission to see justice take its place. Which is why Mingyu knows she can trust him to solve this case.

But, of course, the case is more intricate than it seems. 
I really, really loved this! Compared to the other books I've read, in this one, Lin crafts an exquisitely elaborate plot. I never really knew who to believe to be the killer until they were unmasked. And even then, there were further mysteries to unveil!
I cannot commend this enough, it was an exceptionally well achieved mystery. 

And, as always, it's a delight to read a book that doesn't feature the same settings, the same type of people, as virtually all HR. Bear in mind, I do like the other HRs. But it's so satisfying not to have everything be told through the westernised white gaze of the usual protagonist. All genres need diversity, and it's lovely to see it in HR, as well.
On that note, as always, I must praise Lin's research and knowledge of the time period. I always learn new things after finishing one of her books!

Mingyu was a very compelling character. I felt for her. I felt how trapped she was, how lonely, how few her options were. I felt how strong she was, in spite of all these things. How she used what power she could, how she did not shy away from doing what needed be done, and how she held her head high while doing so. 
We grow used to modern heroines having more of an agency, but Mingyu was no less strong because, as she said, she realised that, “Sometimes exploiting a man’s power is the only influence a woman can wield.
Kaifeng was more closed off as a character. We didn't dwell much in his POV. I understood him as a character, I understood his choices, and his personality. I even liked him and wanted him and Mingyu to end up together. 
But the romance, for me, wasn't the most important part of this story. 
Anyway, if you want a good HR with a well-crafted mystery and sensible characters, then you certainly cannot miss this book!
Jeannie Lin's official site

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