If I could give half stars, this book would have earned four and a half.
I don’t generally read romances, especially period romances, but The Lotus Palace sounded intriguing. Jeannie Lin made me care about the main characters from the very start of this book, which surprised (and delighted) me. As other reviewers have mentioned, there are several basic plots to this book: a romance, a murder mystery, and an exploration of the Tang Dynasty class system. That’s a pretty ambitious set of themes to tackle. At times I felt like I was reading a modern mystery that had simply been plunked into ancient times, but the period details are rich and the characterization was consistently lovely. As the protagonist Yue-ying (a former prostitute now maid-servant to a courtesan at a pleasure house) finds herself drawn into both a murder investigation and an unlikely romance, the story details peel back in surprising and often lovingly crafted ways.
The denouement was a bit sudden and I felt a tiny bit cheated by not seeing more about how the strong female characters toward the end made their influence felt. That’s the part that kept me from giving this book a five-star review. Otherwise, I was intrigued and invested in the storyline. The subtle theme of love revealing itself in so many different ways (often unexpected or nearly invisible) was one of the more fascinating sub-elements, deftly painted, and most of the book was written with a light hand that refused to condemn or support the politics of the time period in which the story takes place.
If you want to read a book that really roots for the underdog, this might be your cup of tea. I’m just not certain which of the two main characters really played the role of the underdog, and I say that as a compliment for a tale both well populated with fascinating characters and one well told.