Butterfly Swords is an historical romance novel set in 758 AD in China during the Tang Dynasty written by debut author Jeannie Lin. Two days ago, I reviewed Jeannie Lin's connected short story The Taming of Mei Lin which precedes Butterfly Swords by about 40 years. Mei Lin is the grandmother of Ai Li, the female lead of Butterfly Swords, so you can easily deduce who trained Ai Li in sword fighting!
Shen Ai Li is the youngest child and only daughter of Emperor Shen. The Emperor and Empress have arranged for Princess Ai Li to marry the powerful warlord Li Tao, who happens to be a long time rival of the Emperor. Driven by honor and duty, Ai Li is en route with a small entourage to Li Tao when her escape is staged by a trusted lieutenant and friend of her father's who has learned that Li Tao is intent on destroying the imperial court and may have even been responsible for the murder of Ai Li's brother. Determined to bring news of this terrible betrayal and danger to her father, Ai Li flees with "bandits" who are in truth her bodyguards in her escape, but she is soon to be the target of yet another betrayal.
An act of kindness, a bowl of poisoned rice and a sword fight later, Ai Li is traveling under the protection of an unusual foreigner called Ryam to the capitol city, Changan to warn her father of Li Tao's betrayals. Ryam is a white man who belongs to a legion of soldiers who survive along the western-most border of the Empire where they loosely serve the self exiled, but rightful Empress of China, Princess Miya. Ryam has found himself alone, in the middle of the empire after leading his soldiers on a mission that resulted in their deaths. Riddled by guilt and a sense of unworthiness, Ryam is on his way back to his people when his path crosses with Ai Li. He his quite taken by Ai Li's swordsmanship, her tenacity, sense of honor, and kindness, as well as by her simple beauty. The two are very slow to reveal their true identities to each other as one's allegiances in the kingdom can be either a life saver or a death sentence during turbulent times. Yet Ai Li and Ryam are intrigued by and curiously at ease with each other and as they spend time together, they fall in love.
The journey is dangerous and complicated for both Ai Li and Ryam in many ways. The most viable threat to their safety is the menacing warlord Li Tao who is in hot pursuit of his missing betrothed, but that's just the most tangible problem. Ai Li has a strong sense of honor and duty to her family and country, but struggles with all of that when it starts to look like she's the only one who maintains such pure values. When she finds herself a pawn in the politics of the empire, Ai Li must make some serious decisions on her own that will inevitably force grave sacrifices upon her. Duty and honor to her family and customs . . . or her chance at true love.
Butterfly Swords is a thrilling little adventure on a grand scale and I just loved it. The story is held together by so many threads that I love about a romantic adventure. A rich setting, a danger and intrigue, and star crossed lovers.
Ai Li is a wonderful heroine whom I admired from the beginning to the end of this novel. She's intelligent and courageous, and while she can be somewhat impulsive, her instincts are keen and she always stays true to her belief system. Plus she's amazing with her Butterfly Swords.
Butterfly Swords is largely Ai Li's story for all she endures and has to come to terms with regarding herself, her family and her country. She really comes into her own in the story and acts with honor and courage. Ryam's character is not as deeply developed and it would have been nice to have learned more about where he was from and all that he's been through. I think I would have felt more empathy for his personal plight if I had a better understanding of his hardships and losses. However, since Ai Li is really the core character of the story, it didn't affect me so much.
I also would have liked if the denouement was a bit more elaborate. I think I expected a bit more from the characters' political and personal motivations and explanations, particularly regarding the Emperor. Then again, it's not over yet as there's a sequel!
All in all, Butterfly Swords is a fantastic debut novel from Jeannie Lin, and hopefully the first of many more Asian historical romances. If you have ever watched a 'Chinese hero' fighting film such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Flying Daggers or The Promise (some of my personal favorites), then you know the beauty and vividness of that is portrayed in a story like this set in ancient China. The premise alone for a story like Butterfly Swords lends itself to an epic feeling. The ancient Chinese Empire in all its majesty, dangerous political intrigue, adventure, sword fights, and the love story of star crossed lovers. It all adds up to a romantic adventure that shouldn't be missed!
A sequel is in the works featuring two prominent characters from Butterfly Swords, currently with a TBD release date. I'm not going to say which characters will be leading in the sequel, because I was a bit surprised by one of them when I read about the book yesterday on the author's website. I actually suggest reading the blurb only after you've read Butterfly Swords. Not that it's terribly spoiler-ish, but I think it would have spoiled some of the suspense I was feeling at the end of Butterfly Swords had I read the blurb beforehand. I will say that the title is The Dragon and the Pearl and is along the lines of a "Beauty and the Beast" type theme. I can't wait!
I also have to admit a certain affinity towards Ai Li's happily ever after love story because it can be summed up just like mine! See the first line in my profile. I, too, was swept away by a handsome man from a far away land. Only I'm the white girl and my man is the Asian dude. And I'm not really a princess... and I've never even heard of butterfly swords until I came upon Jeannie Lin's books... but you get the idea. ;) Anyway, I really enjoyed reading about another interracial love story.
Visit author Jeannie Lin at her website at http://www.jeannielin.com/.