Here’s a historical romance that actually gives the genre a good name. I know some people reading this are automatically going to assume “historical romance” and “quality” don’t belong in the same sentence (let alone the same lexicon). Trust me, I’m not normally a fan of this kind of material either—which is why Real/Fake Princess came as such a pleasant surprise.
R/FP is set against the period of the Southern Dynasty in China (1136 C.E., according to the notes), and is—as most romances are—a clash of wills between a man and a woman. The man is Wu, the “Seeker,” yanked off the battlefield and appointed new duties he has no particular interest in. His job is to find members of the royal family who have been displaced by the war, ensure they are the real thing, and re-install them in the imperial palace. Since there are entirely too many people out there trying to impersonate the royal family, he’s forced to sift through them all and apply heavy manners to get the job done. His main compensations include alcohol—lots of it—and a fair amount of time spent with a courtesan, Dai Xuan, who’s also growing rather attached to him.
The woman is Zhi Li, the true daughter of the last emperor, now in hiding in a little fishing village with her brother. They pose as apothecaries, and all that time away from the court has allowed Zhi Li to blossom into a headstrong young woman with a strong attachment for her “brother,” Hui (actually just her guardian during her time in exile). At the start of the story, Hui has just paid a visit to the Seeker in the capitol, and is prepared to bring Zhi Li back there and reinstate her title. There’s only one problem: she has no interest in going back to the capital. Her home is here, in the village, helping her neighbors and being with Hui.
Duty speaks loudest of all, though, and soon a very petulant Zhi Li finds herself standing in front of Wu, who remains singularly unimpressed by her, and is determined to “unmask” her as a fraud. If she admits openly to being a fraud, she can take a small stipend and leave—but if she persists in her “deception,” she can be put to death. Of course, at least part of this is a ruse: the real princess, you see, would not simply take a bribe and walk away. As un-regal as Zhi Li is, outwardly, she’s got a fire about her that reminds Wu a great deal of the man who could be her father. And it goes without saying that Wu finds himself responding to that pride in a way he doesn’t expect.
The tug-of-war that unfolds between forms the substance of the story, and it’s a pleasure to watch how it advances thanks to both lead characters being genuinely interesting personalities. We’re curious to see what they do next, which is one of the hallmarks of any good story. At one point Dai Xuan makes an analogy using (what else?) a game of chess, but here the analogy actually fits, and at the end of the first volume I sensed there was going to be a lot more to this particular romance than I’d been led to believe by a mere synopsis.
One of the real pleasures of doing this review beat is to receive something you don’t know anything about and come away from it with a smile on your face. Fans of romance in general and historical romance in particular are probably going to come away as pleased by Real/Fake Princess as I was.
Other Lives Of The Mind