Review: The Fragrant Concubine by Melissa Addey

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China, 1760. The Emperor conquers Altishahr, a Muslim country to the west of his empire and summons a local woman from his new dominion to come to the Forbidden City as his concubine.

Meanwhile in the market of Kashgar a girl named Hidligh is kidnapped by Iparhan, a woman scarred by the Emperor’s conquest of her homeland and bent on vengeance. Iparhan offers her a deal: Hidligh will become the Emperor’s concubine, living a life of luxury. In return she will act as Iparhan’s spy.

But when Hidligh arrives in the Forbidden City, she enters a frightening new world. Every word she utters may expose her as an imposter. Iparhan is watching from the shadows, waiting to exact her revenge on the Emperor. The Empress is jealous of her new rival. And when Hidligh finally meets the Emperor, she finds herself falling in love…

To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from this book. I had seen a favorable review of it on Historical Novel Society, but the cover had a self published look and the title seemed a bit lurid. I was pleasantly surprised that it ended up being a very solid historical novel about an obscure historical figure with the added bonus that the author ended up blending the two different legends about this woman to make something that, if farfetched, was at least plausible. While it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Hidligh is able to quickly master all of the arts that a wealthy Chinese concubine would have been trained from birth in such a limited time, it is believable that she might have been given a pass being that she was foreign. Hidligh is happy with her place, a concubine who isn’t jealous, but who truly does love the Emperor. She’s a product of the time period and culture and she doesn’t expect to monopolize his affections. In fact, the jealous Empress who does covet his love ends up destroying herself for that very reason. The Empress, a terrifying figure, ultimately becomes pitiful as her attempt to oust Hidligh from the palace proves to be her undoing.

The bigger villain is undoubtedly Iparhan. Her determination to gain revenge turns her into an unsympathetic monster, one who terrifies Hidligh and ends up using even those who still love her. Maybe I should feel sorry for Iparhan, but her cruelty makes it impossible. There is nothing admirable in her all consuming plot for revenge. She is cruel and destructive to everyone she comes across and in the end has no one to blame but herself.

4 out of 5

Review: The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

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In February 1915, a member of one of Canada’s wealthiest families was shot and killed on the front porch of his home in Toronto as he was returning from work. Carrie Davies, an 18-year-old domestic servant, quickly confessed. But who was the victim here? Charles “Bert” Massey, a scion of a famous family, or the frightened, perhaps mentally unstable Carrie, a penniless British immigrant? When the brilliant lawyer Hartley Dewart, QC, took on her case, his grudge against the powerful Masseys would fuel a dramatic trial that pitted the old order against the new, wealth and privilege against virtue and honest hard work.

Was a housemaid able to get away with murder (or at least manslaughter) because she was a virgin? The answer is yes, pretty much. Granted Carrie Davies is a sympathetic figure, but the fact remains that she killed a man who at the time was posing no discernible threat to her. While Bert Massey possibly did make an indecent pass at Davies, the mousey little maid’s story didn’t add up completely (why didn’t she leave? why didn’t she tell her sympathetic sister? how could she have been in a “state of panic” all day and not leave the house?) and Davies was acquitted more based on the fact that she was an “innocent” than the actual facts of the case. But the other side of this case is the fact that domestic servants really DIDN’T have any recourse against predatory employers. No rape convictions were ever upheld and for a society that said that a woman was “fallen” and untrustworthy if she wasn’t a virgin even in cases of rape, most women had no other way out.

What unfolds is a story about a woman who possibly got away with murder, but may have had no other choice based on society at the time. It’s also about Canada itself, a country trying to establish itself away from its British loyalty and make an identity for itself during the Great War. A maelstrom of prejudice, nationalism, prudery, misogyny and industrialization formed to cause an oddity in murder cases. A case that was a sign of its time, yet also a sign of things to come.

4 out of 5

Review: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

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When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?

I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed this novel. When Amaterasu meets the man who could be her grandson, the tragic story of what transpired between her, her daughter, and an enigmatic doctor slowly starts to unfold. I couldn’t really fault many of Amaterasu’s actions. While the motives were wrong (and that is what haunts her), keeping her sixteen year old daughter away from a much older married man who seduces her and has shown a penchant for being a lady’s man doesn’t seem like bad parenting. I struggled to sympathize with the doctor at all. While I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him to some degree, I really could find nothing likable. Sure he raises Hideo, but I think that has more to do with his guilt over the position he put his mother in. And his ongoing feud with Amaterasu seems to reveal that he never understood the initial hurt he did to her (and then she had to watch him doing to her daughter, in her mind). Are we supposed to forgive him because he claims he really was in love with Yuko? Would the whole situation been avoided if Amaterasu had been honest with her daughter in the beginning? Is Hideo really Amaterasu’s grandson? There are many questions left in the end, but the point isn’t so much getting answers as it is becoming reconciled that life doesn’t always give you the answers and sometimes it’s up to you to choose what you believe.

5 out of 5