White Tigress

Burning Tigress by Jade Lee
(Dorchester, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-8439-5688-7
Jade Lee is working hard to carve a distinctive niche for herself in the historical romance landscape. Burning Tigress is the most recent in a series set in fin-de-siècle China. Like the others, it too explores the Tao of eroticism. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to its exotic setting and intriguing premise.

Charlotte Wicks is tired of being a cosseted Englishwoman and would like to explore her sexuality. No wonder she is thrilled when she receives a set of ancient scrolls depicting naked men and women in all kinds of positions. These instructional materials from a Taoist sect explain how to channel sexual energy to reach Heaven on Earth (kind of like a ground-moving, heaven-propelling orgasm, only more: you get to meet angels and to see floating white lights). Uncertain she understands the scrolls, Charlotte asks Ken Ji, the family's First Boy, for lessons.

Ken Ji has little liking for Europeans. He nevertheless agrees to Charlotte's request for his own reasons. He is an adept of the sect and wants to "gather her yin" to open his path to heaven (see comments above on the super-orgasm thingee.) But Ken Ji underestimates Charlotte's determination and inner energy. As he initiates her into sexual pleasure, he is surprised to find her outdoing his expectations.

And yet, all is not easy in the way of the Tigress. Before Charlotte and Ken Ji can settle down in Heaven, Charlotte and Ken Ji must come to terms with long-held personal expectations, face down prejudices from both Chinese and Europeans, and contend with old-running family feuds.

All this sounds very promising, if a little hokey. Still, Burning Tigress didn't work for me. It took me a while to get into it, and not just because of the Taoist twist. Once the sexual initiation was under way, I worried the novel was going to be one sexual encounter after another with only a very vague plot to tie it together. That this is not the case didn't become apparent until the last third of the novel, by which time it was too late.

I also had a hard time warming to the heroine, and in particular to her odd mix of innocence and curiosity. On the one hand, Charlotte wants to be daring and risqué; on the other, she sets a lot of importance on her physical virginity. And if her total lack of racial prejudice is laudable, I do wonder how historically plausible it is. Little in her personal history, besides a mentally challenged younger brother, justifies her open attitude.

The secondary characters aren't much better. They are either superfluous, as with Charlotte's family, or poorly drawn, as with Ken Ji's former partner. The latter plays the villain's part only to ride miraculously to Charlotte and Ken Ji's rescue at the end. I'm sure even a Taoist would agree that more balance is required in the fictional universe.

What ultimately nearly saves the book is Ken Ji's backstory. Not only is it engaging; it is also one of the rare moments when the historical period and its reigning social conflicts are foregrounded. Too bad it doesn't become relevant until the last quarter of the book, when it leads to a rather exciting show down.

One final point: the euphemisms deployed to describe body parts, love- making and orgasms are not the usual run of the mill. It's hard to say whether "rearing dragon", "cinnabar cave", and "yin dew" (or flow or tide or rain) are Lee's inventions, literal translations from Chinese or traditional Taoist metaphors. In any case, I was rather fascinated by the variations until I realized that purple prose in another color is still purple.

--Mary Benn

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