This review came about because Romantic Times editor Regina Small very considerately assigned me Zen Cho’s upcoming novel Sorcerer to the Crown (of which more later, over at Romantic Times, which if you are not reading you should be). The wheels of reviewing grind slow but sure. Today I woke up thinking “I am really in the mood to read an unfamiliar to me Zen Cho work!” but … alas, the book is still on its way to me.
Then I remembered: the author has a website and on that website she has links to works of hers one can buy in ebook form. While I have read and reviewed Spirits Abroad], I had not yet read her 2012 novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo! Which, to be honest, is an epistolary historical romance, a genre in which I am not well read and with whose conventions I am unfamiliar. There are many pitfalls for reviewers dabbling in new genres, but, in the same bold spirit that led Napoleon to Moscow and Vercingetorix to Rome, I forge onwards!
Geok Huay—”Jade Yeo” to her fumble-tongued Anglo friends in London—is a young Malaysian woman living in Jazz Age Britain. Aside from her judgmental Aunt Iris (and Iris’s kids, whom we never see), Jade has no family in the United Kingdom and so she enjoys a life of wild, carefree freedom, insofar as “writing endless reviews of books for the Oriental Literary Review” can be considered wild and carefree .
Sebastian Hardie is a grand, respected figure in British literature. Pity that Jade deems his The Wedding of Herbert Mimnaugh to be full of “sentimental posturing—inelegant language, ridiculous conclusions.” Even worse that Jade isn’t the sort of person to worry overmuch about how the white establishment might react to an Asian reviewer lambasting one of their bright young things.
There’s always a risk when one reviews a luminary that they will react by what we in the trade call “pulling a David Brin”. Jade is somewhat alarmed when she receives an invitation to one of Hardie’s parties, unsure what his purpose is. As it turns out, Hardie isn’t so much offended by Jade’s intrepid reviewing as intrigued. Normally something of a wallflower at parties (when she isn’t being mistaken for one of the waitstaff), being the focus of a charismatic man is an unfamiliar experience for Jade. But it is not unpleasant….
The revelation that Hardie is married is something of an unwelcome surprise but this is the 1920s and the Hardies are terribly modern. Hardie is not some sort of cad cheating on his wife; Diana Hardie is well aware and supportive of her husband’s affairs. Jade is less confident that she wants to participate in the Hardies’ bold lifestyle but really, isn’t it the responsibility of all true artists to explore life’s possibilities?
Although to be honest, there’s less to Hardie than either he or his wife believe, and it doesn’t take long for Jade to fully explore his limited potential. Which would be fine if only Hardie had not left Jade with a little gift to remember him by….
Hardie may be a great figure of British letters but the glimpses we get of him
“The conjugal act gives her little pleasure,” he said. “But she knows all of my heart and mind—she has joy in that, and in our children, and the garden. She has her own friends. She paints—she will never be great, but it gives her pleasure.
give the impression of a condescending ass. Hardie and his wife aren’t without their good points (they don’t even try to suggest they don’t have a financial responsibility towards the child), but in the whole I am left with the impression of a fellow who while charming and functional enough in bed has the depth of an oil slick. Of course, Hardie is merely a road bump on Jade’s personal journey of self-discovery.
Being somewhat familiar with British mysteries of this period, I think the author has dialed down the … I need a diplomatic phrase … horrifyingly blunt racism of the era. I mean, yes, the Hardies casually assume English is a second language to Jade, when in fact she was born in a British colony, and someone does hand her an empty glass at a party in the belief that she is a maid, but in the context of a Britain where Asia immigrants were targeted for exclusion and race riots targeted the Chinese, it all seems more genteel than it could have been.
I enjoyed the author’s prose in Spirits Abroad and I enjoyed it here as well.
The plot is a little constrained by the fact that this is a novella. I had a pretty good idea that Jade would have to end up with a certain character as soon as that person put in an appearance. It’s not just that the couple are clearly, obviously suited for each other (aside from the detail that neither of them is able to envision a world where the other returns their affection ). The cast is small and to quote Sherlock Holmes “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I believe something similar must logically apply to romances; if the conventions dictate that the protagonist is going to end up with someone and all but one of the limited number of people in the story are clearly unsuited to be that someone, then that one person who isn’t clearly ruled out has to be that future partner, even if there are various serious but surmountable issues like weapons-grade mutual obliviousness.
Still, knowing the destination isn’t the same as knowing the route by which it will be reached. I recommend the story to anyone, not just people who enjoy Jazz-era comic romances.
1: I could of course go into considerable detail about the energetic debauches typical of a book reviewer’s life, but perhaps that would be too racy for my readers.
2: That plot detail alone is enough to establish this as the hardest of science fiction: the incapacity of people to discern mutual attraction even when it undeniably exists is as real a fact of human existence as people’s ability to kid themselves that it exists when it doesn’t.