Despite my claims that my preferred reading material of choice is historical romance novels, there has been a vast shortage of that in my reviews. But no more! The dry spell has ended. Come, and be the lucky few to bear witness to this momentous occasion.
So when someone says ‘historical romance’ there’s probably one of two images running through your mind. Perhaps you’re imagining a plaid kilt fluttering in the high breeze upon the grassy plains of the Highlands and big burly arms wrapped around a wee little lass. Or perhaps you’re imagining covert kisses and corsets coming underdone in an English tea garden. Historical romance novels generally have a very limited range of where and when they can take place—usually somewhere in the U.K. between 1780 to 1850—but Jade Lee and her novel Tempted Tigress, sixth in her Tigress series, takes us far away from the familiar shores of England. Instead, she transports us to China, circa the late 1800s during the height of British colonialism, and not only presents an enthralling romance but also a stark portrayal of Colonial China.
The story follows Anna Marie Thompson, a British orphan who grew up in China and finds herself running opium for her adopted father, and Tau Zhi-Gang, the Empress’s Enforcer tasked with hunting down the opium sellers who are addicting and poisoning China’s people. There is also the undercurrent of the Tigress, the connecting theme of the series about the Hindu tantric sex practices, which really takes a secondary role in this novel as opposed to its importance in the others. Anna Marie decides to flee China and attempt to start over in Britain and attempts to escape on China’s Grand Canal. Anna, of course, falls into the hands of Zhi-Gang who recognizes her as not only an opium dealer, but also an addict. Using her life and her freedom as leverage, Zhi-Gang strikes a deal with Anna—help him capture one of the worst opium sellers in China, her father, and she’ll be free to go. With little choice Anna agrees. Zhi-Gang and Anna are both weary, tired souls tripped in young bodies, and there’s a sort of intimate, deep connection between them beneath the layers of mistrust and suspicious that stands between them that begins at the start.
What Lee does so well in her novels is to create unapologetic, but not unsympathetic characters. Anna is an opium drug runner, and now an addict as well, and though she is plagued by guilt over what she has done, it’s still what she did to survive. She has her own character development that is separate from Zhi-Gang, though at times it’s aided by his presence. Anna must come to terms with her actions, her decisions, and what she wants out of life—this fantasy world she has created out of England, or attempting to carve a life out in the country who has treated her cruelly but not always unkindly. An equal match to the stellar portrayal of Anna, Zhi-Gang is hard, unrelenting, and carrying a silent guilt over something he did as a child that had irrevocable consequences. Zhi-Gang is truly a gem, Chinese honor wrapped up in modern thinking all struggling for dominance. He “hates” the Whites as a rule, because they came to China and poisoned it, but he doesn’t see China in rose-tinted glasses either, and he comes to see that not all Whites are evil (Anna, for example, misused but still strong and still in control of herself) and most come to terms with that.
And there is always the sex. All of Lee’s Tigress stories place sex on a level higher than simple human mating, largely because the theme of tantric sexuality are woven throughout. Men and women are ying and yang, and only together can they achieve heaven through carnal bliss, the women by giving and the men by withholding. This, of course, opens interesting discussions about the equality and gender politics between a man and a woman—the woman is the tigress and the man is the dragon, but it’s the tigress who can truly bring them to heaven—that Lee does not shy away from. Women had it rough in the 1800s but nothing like the women in China had it, and Lee’s women have no problem pointing that out and the men are never forgiven for thinking less of a woman because she is a woman unless they come to realize why they’re wrong in thinking it. Zhi-Gang and Anna have an interesting dynamic in that regard; Zhi-Gang needs Anna because she’s the only one with connections to the opium drug ring and as such he’s largely in her hands, and he is not used to being at the mercy of a woman. Anna is beautifully strong and vulnerability in turns, determined to live but also struggling under the weight of her own grief. It’s a pungent story and so rare in a romance novel tagged as “erotica.”
As far historical romances go, Lee’s is a step above, existing outside the typical bounds of historical romance. You won’t find English tea parties or Highland raids here, and Lee never gives you a glossed over China. Colonial China is not pretty, and Lee never claims otherwise. And yes, the novel is rife with graphic scenes of sex but it’s not all about the sex—or at least the act of it. It’s about the emotions, it’s about healing and being healed, it’s about accepting who you are and what you want and doing what you have to do to survive. Tempted Tigress, and the Tigress series on a whole, is a must read for an historical romance fan.