Tag Archives: class

Viscounts and Vorkosigans

Welcome to the inaugural post in my new once-monthly series, For the Love of Lit Crit, where we treat romance novels like the deliberately composed texts they are. Posts will be tagged as such and collected on their very own page. Spoilers generally abound. Suggestions for a better series title (and books to analyze) will be eagerly entertained.

In Jo Walton’s review of A Civil Campaign for Tor.com, she states that aside from the title she finds this book has more in common with The Grand Sophy than with Heyer’s A Civil Contract. As far as plot structure and character are concerned, she’s probably right — I’ve never read The Grand Sophy myself so I’m leaving that one out of this analysis. But thematically, I feel like the Vorkosigan book is a direct response to the themes of Heyer’s text. A Civil Contract is essentially about the social self, how to define it and how it can or cannot be changed; A Civil Campaign takes these fundamental questions and very forthrightly rebuts Heyer’s conservative theses.

In A Civil Contract, hero Adam starts the book by being thrown out of his accustomed orbit. He has inherited his late father’s title, he has become the legal head of his family, he has been injured in battle and has a permanent limp, and now he must cash out his captaincy and abandon his military career. The previous viscount ran in the highest social circles but was financially profligate and reckless; much of Adam’s journey over the course of the book deals with him trying to find a different mode of aristocracy more suited to his personal inclinations. He does so by following the example of the elderly gentlemen-farmers and learning how best to improve his ancestral lands, thus satisfying his class pride while also gaining scope for his energy and individual drive. It is a personal decision, but it also means Adam never really questions his position as an aristocrat. He simply finds a more personally palatable form of aristocracy, without rejecting the class hierarchy’s fundamental assumptions.

This is not the only time Adam inhabits a ready-made social role. His romance with Julia is obviously a classic example of the Wounded Hero romance, a connection between two types rather than two individuals and explicitly described as such:

It was not wonderful that he should have alleviated the pain and the weariness of the months he had spent in and out of the surgeons’ hands with a flirtation with the lovely Miss Oversley; still less wonderful that a romantic girl should have encouraged the gallantry of a hero of Salamanca. (A Civil Contract, Kindle location 150)

Julia is less a character than a symbol in this novel: she exists to embody the most rarefied type of nobility. And while Adam found this charming before, he comes to a different opinion after her marriage to the Marquis of Rockhill: “when he looked at Julia, and listened to her, she seemed to be almost a stranger. Even her appearance had altered. She had always been charmingly dressed, but in a style suited to her maiden status; he had never seen her attired in the silks, the velvets, and the jewels of matronhood” (Kindle location 4975). This is the glittering and useless aristocracy of Adam’s father, against which our hero has been struggling over the course of the whole novel.

I have said before that I often try to root for the Other Woman as a habit of feminist praxis, and Julia is such a quintessential Other Woman that empathizing with her feels like real resistance to patriarchy. The more the text tries to make her unsympathetic — to make her spoiled, or histrionic, or casually adulterous — the more I want to champion her. Yes, she’s impractical and sheltered — not hard, when her attempts to be practical are roundly mocked and everyone goes out of their way to shelter her. I can’t find it in me to blame her for what has obviously been done to her by her family (and the author). Adam’s gradual rejection of Julia and what she represents reads to me less like a character coming into emotional maturity and more like a man who slowly comes to believe himself a superior kind of person. His preference for the maiden over the matron ties in with his protectiveness of Fontley and his resistance to Mr. Chawleigh’s wealth: there’s something about purity in there that I would tease out if I could stand to spend so much time talking about Adam. (Confession: I’m one of those readers who remains unconvinced by this book’s happy ending).

I must also disagree with Jo Walton’s assertion that there’s “none of Heyer’s weirdly vile racism here, because we don’t see anyone to provoke it.” (Also: weirdly vile? As opposed to commonly vile?) Here’s an early passage describing Mr. Chawleigh’s reception by his new in-laws: “With every will in the world to talk pleasantly to him, an over-delicate refinement made [Adam’s sister] Charlotte regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal” (1376). Racism and colonialism underscore the inherent class bias in the text: Mr. Chawleigh is as far removed from the world of Adam’s titled English family as a brown- or black-skinned native of some far-flung imperial wilderness. It’s a little moment, but a telling one: that’s a lot of power systems to invoke in one throwaway simile.

Despite the narrative’s attempts to make him overbearing, Mr. Chawleigh is an incredibly likeable character, even if I did hear his dialogue in the voice of Mr. Hardwood from this episode of Blackadder (video link: relevant bit starts at 11:04). His rampant generosity and earnest desire to make his new in-laws happy are touching and empathetic. But to Adam’s high-born eyes his greatest virtue is his refusal to mix with those above his social station. Adam is similarly grateful for Jenny’s reticence to make changes at Fontley, even when those changes are necessary maintenance and repair. As the romance progresses, the story asks the question: How permeable are the barriers between Adam and Jenny? How much can they transcend their social selves to make a sincere connection separate from class and status?

Not that much, as it turns out. They can essentially hold hands through the chain-link fence, but they will never be the same category of person. Jenny is much more attuned to this than Adam, which makes sense as the marginalized are always much more attuned to the workings of privilege than the privileged are. (See: rape culture, institutional racism, accessibility for disabled people, etc.) Upon her first much-postponed arrival at Fontley — her husband’s home! which her father’s money helped save! — Adam tells her she can do as she pleases and Jenny has the following heartbreaking insight: “She did not say: I am only a guest in your house, but it was what she thought, for he uttered the speech just stiltedly enough to betray that it had been rehearsed” (3473). This same assumption of difference underlies Julia’s suggestion to Adam that they enjoy a discreet sexual liaison (it’s couched as ‘friendship,’ but come on): “Cannot something be left to us? … Jenny could not be hurt by anything that passed between you and me, Adam” (3830). Nor will I be the first person to point out that Jenny’s lack of beauty reads as a function of class, even though there’s no statistical reason to suppose a commoner is likely to be less pretty than a lord’s daughter. Moreover, while Jenny gives birth to a son with a great deal of bodily risk and effort, Julia becomes a stepmother to two girls already half-grown. It’s hard not to see this as a class distinction as well: the common folk’s messy struggle, the upper classes’ aloofness and untouchability. I found myself wanting to read more about Julia and her stepdaughters; it felt as though there was a whole book there waiting to be explored, more nuanced than the usual stepmother tropes allow. Again: official Olivia Waite stance is Team Julia.

And Team Jenny — because Jenny broke my heart and she deserves better than what she gets in this book. Here is Adam’s ultimate confession of love: “‘I do love you, Jenny,’ he said gently. ‘Very much indeed — and I couldn’t do without you. You are a part of my life'” (6006). Jenny has one of her quiet, unspoken revelations: “Probably Adam would always carry Julia in some corner of his heart … although he might no longer yearn to possess her she would remain nostalgically dear to him while life endured.”

This is a hell of a thing for a romance heroine to think at the emotional climax of the book.

Look, I get it: the chemistry of lust can be blinding, and a quieter, less dashing partner can nevertheless be wonderfully romantic (e.g. Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon, be still my swooning heart). And we should definitely resist the urge to define love as a thing earned through effort, because that way lie the hellish gates of the Friendzone and favor sharking and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” where unasked-for sacrifices by manipulative partners lead to an obligation for love, for sex, and for attention and power in ways that are clearly misogynistic. (Thanks to Cecilia Grant for reminding me about “Grenade!” That song is the catchiest and the worst.)

But does Jenny not deserve one goddamn moment where it’s all about her? Where her thoughts, needs, feelings, and existence as a human being come first? Just one would be nice. But there’s nothing in Adam’s confession of love that even comes close to Mr. Chawleigh’s quietly heartrending, “She’s all I’ve got, you see” (4848). The problem is not that Adam and Jenny’s relationship is different in kind than Adam and Julia’s: the problem is that Adam and Jenny’s relationship will always come second to Adam’s relationship with Adam. Jenny becomes part of his life, but she never really becomes part of his self, and her own self disappears in consideration of his aristocratic priorities.

This is not merely a romantic failure in our hero, I would argue, but a larger failure of empathy across class boundaries. Contrast Mr. Chawleigh’s open and earnest affection for his daughter with Adam’s feelings upon seeing his newborn son for the first time: “He thought he had never seen anything less beautiful than the red and crumpled countenance of his son” (6006). Father of the Year, that one. He only waxes enthusiastic when he sees that this noble-born future viscount is equally scornful of his lowborn antecedents: “I left [Mr. Chawleigh] making the most peculiar noises to his grandson, who treated them with utter contempt — very understandably, I thought!” (6006). He’s pleased to see his baby son self-ally with the proper class by scorning Mr. Chawleigh. Blood will tell, as so often happens in Heyer. Class is changeless. It’s an essentially conservative thesis.

It’s also rejected in every possible way by Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.

First, a few disclaimers: I’ve been hopping around the Vorkosiverse rather than reading the series straight through, which means there’s a lot I’ve missed so any comments and clarifications from those in the know would be most welcome. Also, if anyone wants to put together a movie version of any of these books and cast Gwendolyn Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth, aka She Who Should Be Queen In Westeros) as Drou, I would be eternally grateful and see said movie seventeen times at non-matinee prices.

It’s a truism that Heyer’s book is about class — but saying this obscures the fact that class, of course, is not one homogenous and indivisible thing. Class is a cake we make out of money, race, manners, education, family, and gender. A Civil Campaign explores each one of these in ways that could really only happen in a space Regency, where futuristic technology and antique social systems can smash productively up against one another.

It’s also not going to be possible for me to talk as much about all this as I would like — especially not when I’ve got edits to be working on! — but I’ll try and hit some of the highlights before my brain dissolves in the heat.

When these books are read back-to-back, Miles reads as an utter rejection of all things Adam: he’s a successful soldier, his family members are strong and independent and happy (for the most part), he’s got a sense of humor about his own failings, his disability is not made conveniently invisible in the way Adam’s is (oh noes, I has a limp that’s noticeable enough to get me sympathy laid but doesn’t stop me from tramping around making pretend I am a farmer God I just hate Adam more and more). But the greatest difference is that Miles is adept at passing through the membranes of class and station that Heyer’s book would have us treat as permanent barriers. His undercover identity as Admiral Naismith is a ghost that haunts the narrative, showing even to readers like me unfamiliar with prior books that Miles’ identity is fluid and variable, Odyssean rather than Achillean. In fact, this becomes the very problem between him and Ekaterina: Miles chooses the wrong self to show her at first, hiding his true intentions in ways that remind her traumatically of her first husband’s manipulations. The idea of being one solid knowable self frightens Miles a little, in fact: “Someday, if things went well, he must stand before her in his skin, in this very room and place, with no disguise at all” (Kindle location 7964). Imagine Adam feeling this self-conscious in front of, well, anyone. Miles is well aware that there is a secret kernel of self not defined by terms like Vor or ImpSec or even mutie: he hesitates to show it to Ekaterin because his shifting selves have successfully kept him alive for so many years.

And oh, Ekaterin — I must really go back and read Komarr because I definitely want more time with Ekaterin. I also feel like she’s a mirror version of Jenny, with Tien as another mirror-Adam — a cold husband who’s convinced his wife she’s a mere accessory, who has a truncated military career, who’s made a great financial gamble (Adam’s is successful, but I still think it was a pretty self-serving move). It’s an unsettlingly short leap of imagination from Adam’s benevolent neglect to Tien’s emotional manipulation and abuse. Ekaterin lost sight of who she was as a person during those terrible years, and on Barrayar she’s trying to assert a self long-suppressed:

Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. (1183)

There’s a whole spectrum of understood social roles for Ekaterin (mother, Vor, grieving widow considering remarriage) but no sense of her true individual self; this is what she is seeking over the course of the plot. The true self is here separate from class, rather than nourished by it as in Heyer’s text — yes, designing gardens is a pretty upper-class thing to do, but designing a prettier butterbug is a much more democratic, business-oriented move. It’s also something that is uniquely her — and she needs that, so desperately. It’s only when she has her self again that she really begins to think about having someone else as well: the romance arc follows the swell of Ekaterin’s growing strength and confidence — even when the person she’s at odds with is Miles himself. This is one of those romances that definitely keeps the characters apart to better effect — something refreshing in a sea of fuck-til-we’re-in-love erotic romances.

If you’ll allow me a brief metatextual tangent, it seems that social class is a little like genre, in that both operate on a set of shared but mostly unspoken assumptions. Both are accumulations of similarities rather than hard-and-fast categories. (And genres, like classes, come with various levels of social prestige.) In her review of the Bujold text, Jo Walton states that the narrative moves of the romance genre are “as stylized as a Noh play.” Romance does have codes and conventions but many of these are very opaque to outsiders or readers new to the genre. For instance, the Hardass Police Captain (video at the link) is an oft-cited cultural touchstone even among people who don’t watch a lot of buddy cop movies, but things like TSTL and Secret Babies and the No Other Woman Bed are far less frequently referenced outside of romance blogs and reviews. In regard to Ekaterin, little moments like suddenly noticing how Miles’ scent turns her on or keeping his apology letter tucked in the bodice of her gown for rereading are as good as an I love you to romance fans, but might not stand out to readers who lack the awareness of those tropes’ repetition. Similarly, class markers are often codes, and often inherited, and rarely talked about openly: for instance, when you bring food to a potluck, what kind of food do you bring? (And all my super-upper-class readers just looked at each other in horror at the word ‘potluck.’) Or when an invitation specifies BYOB, do you bring a mid-range white Burgundy or a case of Natty Ice? (Everyone with working tastebuds just looked at each other in horror at the words ‘Natty Ice.’)

And now we’re at 3k words — is your attention span as strained as mine? And I’m writing all this! It’s summer — we all deserve a break. Let’s hit the rest in bullet-point form.

  • Mark: Miles’ clone, so the two men are genetically identical. But physically and intellectually vastly different — Mark was raised in an abusive, horrifying situation, trained as a living weapon of assassination for his clone-brother. He’s been accepted into the Vorkosigan family (!) and is trying to figure out what his role is there, including getting treatment for mental health issues that manifest as a set of alternate selves known as the Black Gang. This was super-interesting to me, so again, going to dive heavily into the earlier books. Again: class is not destiny, family is not destiny, upbringing is not destiny.
  • Kareen Koudelka: Barrayar-born but coming back from a year’s education on Beta. Her sexual activities with Mark are gratifying to both her and him, and immensely helpful in his therapy — which would be creepier if Kareen weren’t so obviously into Mark and vice versa — but open pre-marital sex doesn’t jive with Barrayar standards of behavior, particularly the narrow standards for young unmarried women of high status. Kareen and Mark fight against the objections of her parents to their relationship, since she’s grown to enjoy the greater freedom and lack of disapproving supervision she found off-world. The pair also find satisfaction in borrowing economic terms with which to define the terms of their affair. This works because both Mark and Kareen place personal value (rather than class-specific value) on business and entrepreneurship.
  • Lord Dono: Betan medical technology allows a female character, Donna, to switch gender entirely for the purposes of inheriting a countship and thwarting her asshole cousin. There’s an unfortunate equivalence here between biology and gender — Dono has a penis, therefore Dono is a man — which prevents me from labeling this as a depiction of a trans character. Let us say instead that it is trans-adjacent. For instance, after the biological change, plot protagonists express varying levels of surprise and approval, but plot antagonists react with revulsion, misgendering, and even attempted mutilation. Dono himself is a wonderful character, charismatic and compelling with an edge of wit and cunning. The Donna/Dono plotline also exposes the way Betan habits and technology are starting to be used as loopholes for the narrow constraints of Barrayaran tradition, and not just by progressives — see also the rather horrifying plotline of the old Vor count and his hundreds of artificially created daughters, which I can’t even begin to take apart without a few more read-throughs and several stiff drinks.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the Beta-versus-Barrayar framework established in Shards of Honor and Barrayar (god, those books, so good!) exists to topple one by one many of the foundational pillars of Regency society as established in fiction like Heyer’s. (Hence this book’s dedication, obvs.) Primogeniture, ableism, women’s role as primarily one of motherhood and childrearing, etc. It’s not perfect — it’s very white and there’s a distinct preponderance of happy heterosexual couples, though let’s talk sometime about Aral Vorkosigan’s youthful flirtation with bisexuality — but it’s an interesting and vastly explorable series. One which I hope to explore more fully once the temperature goes down and stops boiling my brain. (Seriously, my recent forebears were from Finland: I’m like Pratchett’s Detritus in anything over 85 degrees.)

Thanks for listening, everyone, and happy summer!

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Speaking of Tor.com, their series on Post Binary Gender in SF is well worth the reading; start here with the introduction.

Merrian Oliver-Weymouth curates the wonderful Pinterest board Barrayar Dreaming, using real-world images and artifacts to visualize the imaginary world of Barrayar. There’s also The Vor, curated by Pinterest user fajrdrako. Both are utterly enchanting.

Someone somewhere has to be writing a thesis or dissertation on the Vorkosiverse and reproductive health choices, right? Abortion, surrogacy, pre-birth disability diagnoses, cloning — it’s all in there. Hard SF doesn’t often get to be this messy about the body, nor so inclined to consider a woman’s perspective on such technologies. I’m going to keep an eye on this as I keep reading. 

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Bujold, Lois McMaster. A Civil Campaign. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle edition.

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011. Kindle edition.

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L is for Jeannie Lin

{Content note: the following post very briefly quotes fictional acts of torture during a police interrogation — and, in case anyone else cringes at such things like I do, I should mention the torture involves hand injuries. GAH. 

Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Despite the casual malice of Othello and the oceans of blood in Macbeth, I have always found King Lear to be Shakespeare’s most chilling tragedy. There’s a dark purple void at the heart of that story into which all good things fall, never to be seen again — it’s simultaneously frightening and fascinating, a masterclass in showing how human isolation can tear a whole world to pieces.

I would never have expected to get shades of that same feeling from a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China, but such are the marvelous gifts the romance genre sometimes offers to its reverent acolytes. And by “romance genre” I mean Jeannie Lin, whose Chinese-set historicals just keep getting better and better: Jade Temptress is a stunning and memorable book, maybe even a masterpiece of the genre. The Shakespeare angle only clarifies how the book deconstructs the interlocking systems of money, class, and power.

Cover image for Jeannie Lin's The Jade Temptress. A woman with pale skin, dark hair, Asian features, and deep red lips wears a white gown patterned with bright flowers and wrapped with a blue sash. Large red flowers are woven into her hair. One hand is languid and the other held against her face in a pose of subtle invitation.The first scene of King Lear sets up everything that follows: the king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the most riches to whichever one who loves him most. Or rather, whichever one claims to love him most, since of course love is not so easily measured or proved as Lear seems to believe. It’s a stupid game, thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. As the two eldest fall over themselves in their haste to kiss dad’s ass, Lear’s youngest and best daughter Cordelia decides the only way to win is not to play.

LEAR: … what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing.

LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing. (Lear I.i.87-91)

Lear imagines himself as something like a fairy-tale king who can discern true goodness and reward it with the appropriate amount of wealth. It is stagey and disingenuous, particularly since he has plainly saved the best part, the “third more opulent,” for his darling youngest daughter. Cordelia’s “nothing” shatters the king’s comfortable little play: she rejects the idea that love can be exchanged for anything except itself. To exchange love for money turns love into something like work — or something like prostitution, though Cordelia doesn’t say so. Lear throws a tantrum, the King of France proposes to Cordelia on the spot, the two elder daughters are embarrassed, and everyone agrees Lear is a royal ass. Things proceed to go quite rapidly to hell.

Jade Temptress heroine Mingyu, a famous courtesan in the imperial capital of Changan, is caught in a similar web where familial relationships and profit-based relationships are conflated. Her fellow courtesans are her “sisters,” and the scheming brothel-mistress Madame Sun prefers to be known as “Mother”:

Though they called each other mother and daughter, Mingyu never forgot the truth. She had a true mother once. Her birth mother had sold her and her sister for a small handful of coins. Madame Sun, her foster mother, would never let her go for so little. (Kindle location 352)

A nice little twist of the knife, there: are you really more valued simply because your foster mother sets a higher price on you? (Short answer: no.) Madame Sun is even less able than Lear to imagine human worth as anything other than a financial measure —  as a result, her affections are always expressed in terms of prices and profit. It’s unclear how much of this is artifice, manipulation for her personal gain, and how much is simply her own deeply ingrained belief: even Mingyu is left uncertain about this, at the end. But she is quite clear on her own position in this dynamic: “Always ‘us.’ There was no Mingyu. There was Madame and there was the Lotus Palace . . .” (375). Since her love (or at least its performance) can be purchased, it becomes a commodity — which is to say it has economic value, and therefore cannot/should not be given away for free. Any sense of the courtesan as a person capable of love outside of currency relationships must be suppressed in order to maintain the value of the courtesan’s love as a luxury item. At the same time, since all her wages go to the Lotus Palace and not to herself, the courtesan is distanced from economic agency: she can earn, but she cannot spend. She is in essence a lever by which money moves from her suitors to her foster mother, who quite literally owns her. As indicated by “There was no Mingyu,” our heroine reads this framework as an erasure: “This is a dream world,” she says later of the city’s pleasure district. “We don’t exist outside it” (1223). This is Cordelia’s thought turned inward: Mingyu recognizes that her participation in the sex trade has made her into nothing, both in a legal and an emotional sense.

Since she is nothing, Mingyu has learned to use nothingness as a weapon in Changan’s tangled web of money, gender, and class. She cultivates a quiet and mysterious air of unreadability — an emptiness behind which she conceals her own truth. Hero Wu Kaifeng recognizes this:

“You make yourself into a blank canvas and let your admirers fill it as required.”

“A mirror,” she corrected, unperturbed. “A courtesan is a mirror. The bureaucrats value their own learning, so I give them poetry and music. The generals value competition and strategy, so I confirm the brilliance of their plans.”

“And myself?” . . .

“You value justice, Constable. Unfortunately, that is the one thing I cannot speak to. I know nothing of it.” (2023)

And this is true: Mingyu and her Lotus Palace sisters are disempowered in Changan by the trifecta of gender, class, and economics. They are all women, of low birth, whose earnings go to Madame Sun. They only have agency insofar as they control the agency of others — specifically, men: “Sometimes exploiting a man’s power is the only influence a woman can wield” (526), Mingyu explains. Love becomes a means of channeling power, and money a measure of both. The higher the price a courtesan commands, the more power she wields — and vice versa. (Which goes a long way toward explaining Madame Sun.) Love separated from money is rendered meaningless, unmeasurable: nonexistent. Mingyu’s fellow courtesan Ziyi, burned by heartbreak, expresses this most succinctly: “The inspector is wealthy and offers you his protection. He’ll pursue you at any cost. It’s hardly different from romantic love. In some ways, it’s more reliable” (2565).

This is some Jane Austen-level irony in a genre romance — especially since the inspector in question, imperial official Xi Lun, is so very easily read as the horror-movie version of the classic alpha romance hero:

Xi was pleasing enough to the eye. His face was square and his jaw broad. To match the strong features of his face, his clothing was impeccable and his manners cultured. He was young compared to many highly ranked officials and he was free with his wealth. (1724)

Handsome, powerful, rich, worldly, and younger than many at a similar point in his career — all my Dom Billionaire alarm bells were ringing like mad. His pursuit of Mingyu is relentless and he completely ignores the charms of the other courtesans, all while giving our heroine crushing kisses, pricey gifts, and a barrel full of disregard for her limits and boundaries. This is the complete set of genre-recognized Stalker Romance Hero Cues. Mingyu responds the only way she can: by getting profoundly creeped out. Xi Lun has entirely bought into — see what I did there? — the system of love-as-commodity that she feels erases her as an individual and an agent. He offers her valuable objects and Mingyu knows this is because he sees her as only another type of object. His intent to purchase her bond — to make her legally his property — is the novel’s biggest threat, and even his erotic desire is an expression less of physical lust than of an eroticized control: “Sex would just be another way for him to exert his dominance” (2160). Again, this is language we are used to seeing as the mark of an alpha hero, but in this context the alpha billionaire’s confidence and compliments turn impeccably sinister.

Xi Lun is only the most obvious symbol of a patriarchal system where all women are commodified to greater or lesser extent. I was strongly reminded of activist blogger Melissa McEwan’s “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck,” which details the way marginalized groups — specifically women, though she recognizes parallels to LGBTQ people and people of color — learn to respond to the constant barrage of microaggressions with wariness and guardedness toward privileged groups, as a form of self-protection. For Mingyu and Ziyi and the other courtesans, every man in Changan exists as a potential threat. Even the wealthy men they hope to seduce into providing for them. Even our hero, Constable Wu Kaifeng.

If Xi Lun is a villainous romance hero, Wu Kaifeng is a heroic romance villain. We know Kaifeng interrogated Mingyu at one point in the first book, The Lotus Palace, but it’s only now that we learn the full extent of what happened. Turns out, he tortured her. Actual physical torture as part of a police investigation — and it’s explicitly sexualized:

The first time Wu had interrogated her, he’d taken out six bamboo sticks and laced them between his fingers. He’d held her hand still in his own as he completed the task, a gesture that was grotesquely intimate. (573)

In the hands of an author I trust less, this would have had me side-eyeing the text something fierce. But Ms. Lin has remarkable control of her material and has not led me wrong before — more concretely, this is not the first time Mingyu has been abused at the hands of a man in authority. The late General Deng was fond of making his possessiveness known in subtle but unmistakably douchey ways. She knows how to read abuse rather than merely react to it: Wu Kaifeng puts her in physical pain, yes, but he does it in the course of his duty — torture being an accepted part of Changan police procedure — and most importantly of all, he stops the torture long before he needs to. (And apologizes for it later in a perfect and specific way.) This one fact is enough to show Mingyu that the constable operates outside the usual dangerous networks of social privilege:

“I don’t trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don’t care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don’t care who I am, which means you don’t care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth.” (596)

Note all the negatives in this early passage — Mingyu is starting to rebel against the values of the Pingkang Li by seeing value in nothingness more generally. She will grow bolder about this as the novel progresses.

Merely being a member of the privileged gender is not enough to put Wu Kaifeng at the apex of power in Changan, and he knows it: “I’m ill-mannered,” he says later. “Unsightly. Nothing to anyone that matters” (1271). Mingyu initially recognizes in Kaifeng a lack that gives him power, similar to her own mirror-like unreadability: “Part of her envied Wu Kaifeng and his unyielding approach. It must be freeing to walk through this world and feel nothing” (596). But their positions are differently privileged by class: Mingyu may not have money of her own — except for what she’s been able to hide away in secret — but she does have access to a moneyed lifestyle. Her clothes, her social skills, her musical ability, all these mark her as a member of the rarefied upper echelons of society, even if she only exists there as a shadow of her true self. The constable, in contrast, is a man of unknown birth, fortuneless and indifferently educated, a pariah in the imperial world where scholarship and bloodlines are directly tied to career advancement and power. Mingyu’s position might be a cage, but it’s a cage raised far above the level a man like Wu Kaifeng can hope to reach. If he resists the kyriarchal network of money and privilege, as Mingyu sees, it is because he has as little hope of agency within that network as she does.

A third of the way through, at the very moment when Kaifeng insists he is nothing, Mingyu contradicts him:

“It’s not true,” she murmured. “You’re not really like that.”

He smiled crookedly at her. “Not ugly?”

“Not . . . nothing.” (1271)

And then something happens: he kisses her. Something else happens: Mingyu kisses him back. (This seems as good a time as any to state that Wu Kaifeng is one of the swoon-worthiest heroes I’ve read in quite some time. Jeannie Lin writes the best first kisses.) “Don’t think too much of this,” Mingyu warns. “I won’t,” Kaifeng promises (1271). And then they part: “They both knew that nothing more could become of it” (1309). This kiss, like Mingyu and Kaifeng, is nothing — but like them, and like Cordelia’s ‘nothing,’ this nothingness has a power outside the system of commodified love and desire. Thanks to the iterative nature of romance narratives, the reader knows damn well that something will indeed come of this. Mingyu is changed almost immediately: “Her stolen and precious hour with Wu Kaifeng had emboldened her more than it should have” (1440). She’s using the language of value — stolen, precious — to describe something that by law and custom shouldn’t even exist.

Kyriarchal power systems are bending beneath the weight of actions motivated by honest mutual desire.

Wu Kaifeng may have started as a torturer, but he moves increasingly away from any attmpts to claim, control, or possess Mingyu. All these terms are standard romance sex scene tropes — hell, they’re practically subgenres at this point — but Kaifeng makes a great case for the pure undiluted hotness of un-claiming: “He found her sash and looped the length of silk around her wrists to secure her arms overhead, but the gesture was only symbolic. Almost poetic, for someone untrained in poetry. He couldn’t tie her there, he couldn’t keep her” (2383). [My notes at this point are simply “SWOON SWOON SWOON.” From me, not Mingyu. She’s not really the swooning type.] This deliberate and careful unclaiming consistently allows Mingyu the metaphorical space to claim herself, to exist again as a person: “When Kaifeng took her like this, single-mindedly, with no motive but for his pleasure and her own, she finally belonged to herself. Her body was her own and this pleasure — this pleasure was hers for the taking” (2737).

But this progression is unsustainable and comes to a head at the climax: Mingyu is growing bold enough to want to free herself from the entire money-love-power system, and talks of leaving the city. Wu Kaifeng knows that although he has come to love her anything he does to claim or take or possess her will only keep her imprisoned. So he retreats entirely, saying they must part.

This next move will take some explaining, so bear with me. Mingyu and Kaifeng are falling in love while trying to solve the mystery of the death of Mingyu’s protector General Deng. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!) At first it appears Deng was beheaded by one of his bodyguards, so the general is given a state funeral and a very expensive new head made of jade. But then it turns out — SPOILERS NO REALLY IT’S COMING UP — that the headless body belongs to one of the bodyguards, and Deng has faked his own assassination so he can start a coup, and he’s been hiding in the family mausoleum, but by the time our protagonists figure this out someone else has killed all the surviving bodyguards and also poisoned the general. And servant confesses and commits suicide, but maybe he didn’t really do it either? And maybe he was poisoned by the real killer? It’s a giant MacGuffin of a murder investigation, with near-constant deceptions and a complete lack of meaning at the end — in short, it’s perfect. And the late general’s oh-so-valuable jade head? Is broken up by Wu Kaifeng and used to buy Mingyu’s freedom from Madame Sun.

So the head of a man who was not actually beheaded is broken, and the pieces used to pay Mingyu’s very real debt — a concrete example of something coming from nothing, of emptiness being turned into profit. Now that the courtesan owns herself again, of course, she is able to reunite with Wu Kaifeng. Mingyu has some money she’s hoarded and they spend most of it renovating a derelict tea-shop: in the book’s final scene, Kaifeng has bought Mingyu a very pretty musical instrument with basically the last of their cash. Now, at the happy ending, nothing is all they have. They’re hoping the tea-shop will turn a profit, but they don’t know. It’s the diametric opposite of the usual romance narrative, where the couple ends up wealthy or at least comfortable — but while a lack of funds might jeopardize the normal HEA, we’ve had the whole rest of the book to know how capable our hero and heroine are at making something out of nothing. Where King Lear let nothingness destroy his life, his family, and his kingdom, Mingyu and Kaifeng find nothingness a haven from the interconnecting dynamics that work to dehumanize them. The vast amount of nothingness at the end of this novel is not a lack, but an opportunity. It’s really quite elegant, as a twist on the usual trope.

A brief postscript: Let this analysis not be taken to mean that sex work per se is necessarily degrading or corrupting or dehumanizing. This is a study of a single fictional text and its motifs. But the intersections beneath which sex work takes place in both Ms. Lin’s Tang Dynasty setting and in our own modern Western Judeo-Christian culture — systems of class oppression and gender bias most especially — these often do great damage to sex workers as individuals and as a class. If Mingyu feels erased as an individual, so too do many real-world sex workers, who are criminalized by an imperfect justice system, and whose voices are discounted by a culture that considers them less than fully human.

An even briefer, much less serious postscript: using the words ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ so often has gotten “Something Good” from The Sound of Music thoroughly stuck in my head — and it occurs to me that the lyrics to that song also set up a system where goodness is rewarded with love as if love is a prize for moral behavior and how is that not a type of commodification and I should probably just stop now before my brain dribbles out my ears.

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Dear Author’s group review of this book touches on the class issues as well as themes of artifice and reality — it’s a really great discussion of a really wonderful book. Miss Bates has a review the parallels many of my own reactions here.

Jeannie Lin’s first book in this series, The Lotus Palace, sold less than expected, so that Harlequin pulled The Jade Temptress from print distribution and made it digital-only. Ms. Lin blogged about her complex reaction to the news, and Courtney Milan responded with print sales figures of her own to back up Jeannie Lin’s thoughts. It’s an interesting conversation on how we interpret sales data in light of race and romance, and there are no easy answers anywhere.

This post from Racialicious is brief but illuminating and touches on capitalism in China, contact between Asian and European cultures, Orientalist stereotypes, and the difference between a concubine and a mistress.

My own views on sex work are rendered largely irrelevant, I think, by the fact that I am not nor ever have been a sex worker. (And no matter what they tell you, erotic romance authorship is not the same thing at all.) For years I have looked to Seattle’s own Mistress Matisse for considered and knowledgeable opinions in a very volatile field of discourse and experience: her Twitter feed is a great source of activism and writing. And while I’ve only just started reading Melissa Gira Grant’s recent book Playing the WhoreI can tell you that it is robust, insightful, and pulling no punches.

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Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress. Toronto: HQN, 2014. Ebook.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. King Lear. Shakespeare Online. Web. 1999. Accessed April 4, 2014.

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