Sunday, October 24, 2010

Butterfly Swords Review

     Butterfly Swords (Harlequin Historical)
Butterfly Swords is not the sort of book I think of when I look at Harlequin Romances.  I expect lots of hot and heavy breathing, but no whistling blades arcing into flesh. I certainly don’t expect Tang dynasty China. Yet Butterfly Swords carries itself with all the confidence of its warrior class heroine through scenes both sensual and blood-stirring, and all of it set within a tumultuous period of China’s history: the later Tang Dynasty (760s). The story does tweak history a bit in that the rebellion described is loosely based on the An Lushan rebellion, but the book's events are fictional. In that sense, Butterfly Swords is an historical romantic fantasy.
     I read most of the book in one sitting, enjoying the flow and power of the author’s language. Then I decided I had read it too quickly to do it justice in a review, so I sat down a few days later and picked it up again. Darned if I didn’t get halfway through before remembering why I had decided to re-read it! It grabs and pulls in ways I can’t begin to describe. I can only appreciate the skill used.
     Consider the following scene where the heroine Ailey has agreed to a friendly duel with Ryam, the hero. If he wins, he will receive one kiss. If she wins, he has to take her to her family home in Changan.
     Ryam couldn’t resist the promise of a kiss to keep him company on the cold journey back to the frontier. It  might even be worth the risk of facing Imperial soldiers again – not that he intended to lose.
     Ailey stood across from him, poised and still. She shook the hair from her eyes with a slight toss of her head and her braid whipped over her shoulder. When she focused again on him, the young woman disappeared and a warrior stood in her place.
     The fight started here, at the moment of decision, long before his sword ever reached striking distance. Ailey radiated more determination than many a seasoned fighter. She bowed formally, bending slightly at the waist with her eyes trained on him. He considered, for a brief moment, whether Ailey had been bluffing all along.
     ‘Ready?’ he murmured.
     She flew at him.
     In a flash of silver, the butterfly swords cut tight lines through the air. He deflected in two sharp clashes of steel, surprised by the strength of the attack.
     ‘I thought this was a friendly match – ‘
     The next swipe of her blade whistled by his throat.
     Ailey pushed inside his defense without fear, without caution. For a second she darted within arm’s reach. He considered simply grabbing her and wrestling her to the ground. Pin her beneath him. The image lingered dangerously. Definitely not honourable.
     He had to jump back to avoid her knee as she drove it upwards.
     ‘I can’t take you to Changan if you kill me.’
     He twisted her next attack aside only to have her spring back, eyes dark with intent, a hint of green sparking within them. She left no room, no time to recover. His heart pumped hard as instinct took hold of him. According to her rules, he could only defend and not attack. He side-stepped and angled the strikes away. Ailey knew what she was doing, keeping him close so he couldn’t use his reach against her. She danced around him with deadly elegance, matching him toe to toe. The rhythm of it almost sexual.
     Better than sexual.
     ‘Ten,’ he announced.
     ‘Show me what you have,’ she retorted.
    
     The book had one surprising moment for me. The heroine's first goal is to return to her family and reveal the treachery of her fiance, the treacherous General Tao. With the hero's help, Ailey meets with her father and discovers that he's aware of the General's political ambitions. Her father requires her to marry Tao anyway and for some reason, the book's path from then on took me to unexpected places. Not that I minded; I was simply surprised. The plot does move a little slowly as the hero debates whether he can have the life he wants with Ailey. After he concludes that he can't, the villain captures Ailey. 
     After a book's length of errors, our hero decides to stand up for himself and what he wants. The actions he takes at that point moved me and fulfilled what I want from a book. Since this is a romance, you know you get a happy ever after. I won't tell you how, but I can tell you a border guard's love and desire for an imperial princess is satisfied in a realistic, but unsappy fashion.
     Make no mistake, this is not your mother’s Harlequin. This is the sort of romance that has crossover appeal  (potentially) to both sexes,  to readers of straightforward history and to the fantasy crowd who tend to love history.