Jade Lee’s Tempted Tigress belongs to that rare species, a romance that honours the label ‘historical’. Its characters are creatures of a specific time, place, and culture. It also happens to be an erotic romance, which took me by surprise and at first put me off. As it turns out, my purchase of Tempted Tigress - an impulse primarily motivated by the uncommon setting, China – proved the luckiest of mistakes.
1900. In the twilight years of the Qing dynasty, China is riven by internal as well as external power struggles. The traditionalist Empress Dowager has staged a coup and put the reforming young Emperor under house arrest, and foreign empires are assaulting Chinese sovereignty. British merchants are flooding the country with opium.
Tau Zhi-Gang, a mandarin known as the Emperor’s Enforcer, has been tasked with executing anyone involved in drug trafficking. Leaving the politics of the Forbidden City behind he continues battling the opium trade that is enslaving his homeland even as he searches for clues to the whereabouts of his sister, who was sold to pay for Zhi-Gang’s education.
An unwanted orphan turned drug runner, Anna “Sister Marie” Thompson struggles with opium addiction, her one clear goal to get out of China alive. But a white devil, a ghost barbarian, has no allies, and when she is caught by the Enforcer everyone expects her to meet a swift death. The delicate political climate complicates the matter, however. There is only one way the Enforcer can guarantee the white opium smuggler’s death without causing an international incident: marriage. A concubine can be killed by her husband without anyone caring…
In Anna and Zhi-Gang, Jade Lee brings together two intelligent, resourceful protagonists whose attempts to outwit each other create a wonderfully dynamic read. As they challenge each other, they slice through their opponent’s self-deceit and hypocrisy to expose failings and flaws with ruthless clarity. In doing so, they recognize a shared darkness that has shaped who they are. Both have sought to forget pain and shame, he through sex, she through opium.
At first, Zhi-Gang is reluctantly intrigued and entertained by the enigma Anna poses (she masquerades as a nun), but as they journey through China their mutual liking builds and they transform from enemies to lovers. He gently coaxes her to reveal herself to him mind, soul, and body, and her courage in doing so increases his respect for her. Moreover, in helping Anna fight against her addiction Zhi-Gang gains a reprieve from his own darkness.
Exposure of self plays a crucial role in this story. Pain can only be healed if it is exposed. When Anna and Zhi-Gang turn to each other, sex becomes a form of self-confession, which is why (after my initial surprise) the erotic scenes felt entirely appropriate. Self-revelation leads to compassion, acceptance, and mutual support. Consequently, when this unlikely pair falls in love it is wholly believable.
Unlike many romances, the power of love does not turn these interestingly flawed characters into perfectly healed centerpieces of an adoring world; instead, love becomes the force that enables them to trust each other and carve out a future together despite the odds.
Descriptions of surroundings are rudimentary: a muddy lotus field, a dilapidated tea-house, a two-tiered junk. Yet there is never any question about where we are, because social values, moral attitudes, customs saturate everything that is said and done. Anna, Zhi-Gang, and the supporting cast are not generic figures in a quaint landscape. The author also shows skill in how she gradually weaves in tantalizing glimpses of backstory that awaken understanding and then sympathy for these two seemingly irredeemable characters.
My criticisms are minor. There are a couple of editing slip-ups. At the beginning of the book Anna’s hands are seen as “long and unusually large”. By page 195, they have become “tiny”. As for the love scenes, there is explicit sex before there is emotional connection, and the content, particularly at the beginning, made my mouth purse. That is a subjective and unimportant quibble, however, especially since the sexual content is less than I braced for, and, as motivations are revealed, none of it is gratuitous.
Tempted Tigress is not a romance for the faint of heart or those who prefer fluffiness and morally admirable characters. While the Boxer Rebellion is not directly alluded to, the period in which the novel is set is turbulent. Racial prejudice is rampant on both sides of the cultural divide. As drug trafficking, slavery, and addiction clash, violence permeates everything.
Yet, as books prove every day, good storytellers can draw you into reading experiences you never expected to enjoy. Tempted Tigress goes onto my keeper shelf.
"As if on cue, the boat crew began a low chant. They had been calling to one another in their own boatman's cant for some time. But now the chanting began. The junk was moving, and Anna's smile became genuine. The boat moved smoothly, didn't jerk roughly, every inch dragged from a hundred coolies pulling against the flow of the water. That meant they were traveling south; nearer and nearer to Shanghai and the boat that would take her away.
'Arabian Nights, then,' she said. 'I accept.'
He clearly did not understand the reference. She explained.
"There is a book. It tells the story of a woman trapped by a wealthy man. She is tasked with entertaining him every night. If her stories bored him, she would be killed in the morning."
'How long does she live?'
'A thousand nights - until she is set free,' she lied.
'After telling stories?'
He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. 'I will not be amused by stories.'"