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Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin
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really liked it
bookshelves: mt-tbr-challenge-2018, pop-sugar-challenge-2018

3.5 stars.

I loved the first half of this story. It's a great road romance in an unusual setting with unusual characters (for historical romance). Ai Li is escaping from an arranged marriage because she's discovered that her groom had her brother murdered and is plotting against her father, who is a powerful leader in the Tang empire (which leader exactly isn't revealed until much later). She is helped by Ryam, a mercenary barbarian from the West when the groom's henchman track her down. Ryam and Ai Li eventually make their way back to the capital, learning about each other and falling in lust-then-love along the way. But they are truly starcrossed lovers, since she's imperial elite and he's a mercenary barbarian. Her life and future are tied up inextricably with her family responsibilities, while he has no family except his fellow soldiers-for-hire.

Ai Li knows her parents will be angry, but she hopes they'll understand once she tells them why she ran away. Their reactions are unexpected, however, and that sets in motion the second half of the story. This part is a lot about imperial politics and their push-pull romance. How can they possibly wind up together? The answer, in the climactic scenes, was a letdown. Oh, they get their HEA, but it feels very deus ex machina and I would have liked much more backstory about how the decision came about. The characters who are so important in the closing chapters feel shortchanged, given how rich much of the rest of the book is. I also wanted way more about Fifth Brother, but that's a personal thing not a flaw of the book.

Ai Li and Ryam are very likeable as the main couple. Ai Li is not just a kickass heroine, the text shows you how she comes by her gifts, and both her strengths and limitations are well portrayed. Ryam has an interesting backstory, and while he's not the most charismatic hero (he's not educated and he mostly thinks about Ai Li and combat), it's kind of nice to have a hero who isn't All Things To All People. He reminded me a bit of Ruck in Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart.

The world is fascinating and immersive. I have no idea what the actual Tang Dynasty was like and there are definitely anachronistic/modern attitudes and representations in the book, but the internal consistency was strong and the characters worked within the fictional setup. This is a great debut, and it's more polished than I expected. I love Lin's later novels, but I expected this one to be rougher. It's not as complex and relies a bit more on tropes, but it's an engaging, rewarding read.
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Reading Progress

July 15, 2018 – Started Reading
July 16, 2018 – Shelved
July 16, 2018 – Finished Reading

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