I know, I know–I don’t do reviews, right? Well, in this case, I’m making an exception. Mainly, that’s because I can say with all honesty that I didn’t know Jeannie before I heard about this book and, although I met her at the RWA conference in Orlando and consider her a friend, I would have read and loved this book regardless.
I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive when I started reading Butterfly Swords. Despite the great buzz I was hearing and the fact that I knew the manuscript had won the 2009 Golden Heart, I wasn’t sure I would connect with the characters or the story. After all, what do I know about China in 968 AD? I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to immerse myself in the world of the book because it would be too unfamiliar.
I’m pleased to say this was absolutely not a problem. To the contrary, the way Jeannie weaves the setting and culture of Tang Dynasty China into this book is nothing short of masterful. I never for one moment felt out of my element, yet this was achieved without info-dumps or long, boring narrative passages. Instead, the book is an action-packed, romantically-charged romp through a culture and time period that feels both exotic and familiar at the same time.
Butterfly Swords is what I consider a classic “journey” romance. The heroine, having discovered that her soon-to-be husband had one of her brothers killed, is determined to avoid marrying him and to warn her father of his perfidy. After staging a daring escape that is made to look like a kidnapping, Ai Li is rescued from her rescuers (who, it seems, have their own ideas about what to do with her) by Ryam, a blue-eyed foreign soldier currently trying to get back to his fellow soldiers just outside the boundaries of the Empire.
Ryam reluctantly agrees to help Ailey (as he thinks of her) get back to her family in Changan, and the two set out on a perilous trek across hostile territory, complete with sword fights (Ai Li is a very proficient swordswoman with the butterfly swords of the title) and internal battles against their growing attraction to one another. Both Ai Li and Ryam know any future between them is doomed from the beginning—he is an outsider and Ai Li has her family’s honor to uphold. Naturally, that makes their desires all the more impossible to resist.
I think Jeannie made an interesting choice when she decided to make her hero non-Chinese, but it’s something that serves the story and the reader well. Ryam’s outsider status makes it possible for him to question Ai Li about things that might also puzzle the reader. Here’s an exchange that I think illustrates this well:
‘You were marrying a man you’d never met. Of course you had doubts.’
‘You don’t understand at all.’ She turned on her heel and continued down the bank. Her stride had lost its carefree gait. ‘In our custom, it would be the greatest insult for a bride to refuse a match simply because she did not like the look of her husband. It would be disrespectful to his family and a great dishonour to mine.’
‘It’s not important that you at least see each other before being wed?’
‘Not at all. I would trust my parents would make me a good match.’
It was hard to believe someone with such unquestioning faith would run away from an arranged marriage. Even if she had been wilful or stubborn, it was unlikely a woman of her standing would risk so much to defy convention. Perhaps there was a lover. The thought alone sent a hot streak of possessiveness through him, unwarranted as it was. But why would she want to return to her family when they would certainly denounce her? Besides, her every touch spoke of innocence. He knew the signs well enough to steer clear under most circumstances.
I was so taken by the story, the characters, and the masterful writing that I actually read Butterfly Swords in one sitting. Once I started, I simply couldn’t bear to stop. I had to know how Ai Li and Ryam would get their happily ever after, particularly after Ai Li’s true social status is revealed.
The only thing that prevents me from considering this book perfect is the way the HEA is accomplished. Obviously, I won’t tell you what happens because I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but I did find it a bit rushed and improbable. It almost felt to me as if Ms. Lin, constrained by the page count of the category format, had to take a shortcut in order to get her story into two hundred and thirty or so pages. Even with that flaw, Butterfly Swords ranks as one of the best romances I’ve read all year, maybe ever.
I sincerely hope every romance reader takes a chance on this book, because I honestly believe this is a romance for every reader.
P.S. The love scenes are hot.