Butterfly Swords, by Jeannie Lin

Jeannie Lin’s Butterfly Swords is a book that was generating major buzz even before it came out. One of Harlequin Historical’s October releases, Lin’s book is unique, in that it’s a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty-era China. The cover is absolutely beautiful, leaving no doubt as to the heroine’s ethnicity and the novel’s content. It really draws the eye, and it steals my breath whenever I look at it.

The story itself is about Princess Ai Li, who flees an arranged marriage after learning that her husband-to-be, a warlord named Li Tao, cannot be trusted. Ai Li travels with a pair of the titular butterfly swords, but she’s not quite as sharp as her blades. She’s a sweet, trusting young woman who can hold her own in a fight, but has a lot of growing up to do. When her flight leads directly into peril, both Ai Li and the reader are infinitely lucky that she runs into Ryam, a “barbarian” warrior who has been separated from the “lost legion” with which he serves. Ryam becomes Ai Li’s protector and, of course, her lover. It’s very much in the style of a road movie, as the two try to reconcile the depth of their emotion with what honor and duty demands from a member of the Emperor’s family. 

It’s a very atmospheric book and an ultimately sweet and satisfying love story. (God knows we need more romance novels set in the East, with non-white characters!) But I found myself distracted by what was going on linguistically. The reader never knows what precisely Ryam’s native tongue is, and the characters speak both it and various dialects of Chinese. Of course, we’re being told about all these differences, since we’re reading the whole thing in English. And in what is, I guess, a nod to what it would sound like in Ryam’s unnamed language, Ai Li is spelled “Ailey” for much of the book. That was a little weird.

I also thought Ai Li was incredibly naive and trusting. Sure, there’s a quiet strength in her; she’s definitely brave, to go galavanting all over the country. But I think her fifth brother says it best, “My sister paints a picture of someone right away. Right or wrong, she decides very quickly.” Her skill at swordplay is excellent, but she’s incredibly sheltered. Despite a few bold choices she makes, I didn’t get the sense that she’d really changed all that much by the end. It’s absolutely in character and a valid choice for a heroine, but it jarred me that I was more in tune with older, battle weary Ryam. Especially since I knew far less about him!

My criticisms aside, Butterfly Swords is a good read, and I hope to see much more from Lin in the future. Harlequin needs to showcase more diverse voices like hers!

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