A historical romance/mystery set in a place other than England? What is this sorcery?! This was, more or less, my thought process when I picked up this book. It’s set during the Tang Dynasty in the Pingkang Li, the pleasure quarter of the capital. Yue-ying is maidservant to a courtesan, Bai Huang is a spoiled nobleman’s son.
Together, they solve crimes!
I really liked the setting, I don’t think I read other books set in ancient China and the descriptions really brought the pleasure quarter and the marketplaces alive. The plot was rather clichéd, with a rich lord who falls in love with a poor (ex-)prostitute, but the unfamiliar setting made the story feel more original. I also liked Yue-ying’s determination and stubbornness. Bai Huang was somewhat more difficult to like: he acts like a dissolute young man who spends more time drinking with courtesans than studying, except that is only a façade and he’s a very respectful young man who wants justice even for the murder of a lowly prostitute; except sometimes he does act like a spoiled nobleman and tramples on Yue-ying’s feelings without even realizing it.
But I think this book’s biggest problem was that it couldn’t decide whether to be a romance or a mystery, and it jumped back and forth between the two. I really love mystery/romance books, but there has to be some sense to the plot. Here, the investigation would be stopped for ages while the characters made out, or alternatively there would be a whole chapter full of sudden revelations. It was confusing to say the least. There weren’t many characters, but the mystery was very convoluted and I gave up trying to solve it at some point and just waited for the characters to puzzle it out. Even then, I was confused because it turned out that they hadn’t really solved it, there were a couple of chapters that looked like an happy end, and then everyone was like “oh wait we forgot this thing so actually this is what happened and this other person is guilty”.
The romantic happy end was also rather unsatisfactory, because after Yue-ying and Bai Huang spent the whole book crying that they can’t be together because of their different class, it turned out that they could if only they asked his mother. Just… like that. It makes most of the book’s conflict seem rather useless. So I did like the characters and the setting, but I felt that overall the conclusion of the book was not very satisfactory either as a mystery or a romance. I’m reading the sequel now, about two minor characters, and I’m hoping the plotting will be less haphazard!