I had a conversation with a friend earlier today about the way labels keep people from picking up things they might actually enjoy enormously. Historical romance is one of those labels — it’s a deal-killer for some people. And that’s a shame, because while Real/Fake Princess falls squarely into that category, it’s good enough to be savored by people who have never before read a romance, historical or otherwise, and might not have had the inclination to do so either.
The third volume is essentially a three-way clash of wills between three major characters in the series: Zhi Li, the long-missing princess of a Chinese emperor, more comfortable masquerading as a peasant; Wu, the Imperial Seeker charged with the responsibility of finding lost members of the royal family (like Zhi Li herself); and Dai Xuan, a courtesan who also happens to be Wu’s lover and is dismayed that his interests are slowly drifting towards Zhi Li. Wu’s not thrilled about that either — he’s one of those men who’s dismayed his emotions are not like horses that can simply be steered this way and that, but he can’t deny how he feels. He’s drawn to this fiery young woman, the most unlikely candidacy for the title of “princess” he’s ever known. (I should also mention a fourth, Hui, who posed as Zhi Li’s older brother while she was in exile but is now also finally willing to admit he wants Zhi Li for himself.)
Things grow all the thornier when Zhi Li is brought before Madame Ji Hua, a senior member of the court, to determine whether or not Zhi Li is the real article. The problem is that Zhi Li now has competition: Dai Xuan, impeccably dressed — and able to tell Ji Hua exactly what she wants to hear, thanks to Wu having inadvertently provided her with everything she needs to know. Zhi Li takes one look at Ji Hua and feels a kind of primal panic — she’s convinced that once upon a time this woman tried to murder her for reasons that remain unclear. But the main threat is from Zhi Li, determined to keep Wu close to her by ridding him of Zhi Li by any means required. And I do mean any — up to and including assassination.
The bare outlines of this story make it sound like overheated melodrama. Yes, the melodrama’s there — but as with the previous volumes in the series, it all works on a higher level than that. The most important reason why is the characters: they don’t feel like mere puppets of the plot, but living and breathing people. They just happen to be stuck in something a lot larger than they have been equipped to deal with, and they do desperate things. Dai Xuan is the best example of this in this third volume — she goes by degrees into doing things that are at first merely questionable, then outright evil, but she’s not a token bad guy. Because we’ve seen her as a full person long before that, it makes her choices and their outcomes genuinely tragic. We didn’t want to see this happen to her — but like Zhi Li, she made her choices freely and knowingly, and now reaps their consequences. It’s a remarkably compelling read.
Even if you’re no fan of historical romance or romance in general, Real/Fake Princess deserves at least a glance. And furthermore, the art’s improved to the point where that’s no longer an issue, either.