Never underestimate the power of a durable cliché. That goes double for romances, although I’m learning that in a few cases — as with Real/Fake Princess — if the cliché is done well, it’s perfectly enjoyable. Here we have the Girl (Zhi Li), who must choose between the Nice Guy (her brother-figure Hui), with whom she feels safe … and the Dangerous Guy (Wu of the Imperial Court), who despite his antagonism for her makes her heart pound. And it’s never a surprise to discover the Dangerous Guy end up with the Girl, although by that time he’s become that much better a person in the process of winning her heart.
Like I said — a formula, but if it’s done right, it’s a lot of fun, and R/F P has been doing it right from the beginning. In the fourth volume, the action shifts from the goings-on within the walls of the Imperial court to something a little more open-ended. After the intrigue of the last volume, which ended in bloodshed, Zhi Li has grown disgusted with the throne she was meant to inherit. She was happier back in the country village where she and Hui masqueraded as doctors and actually did something for the world around them. Hui knows all this, but he’s also acutely aware that his presence will only make things worse between Zhi Li and Wu, whom Zhi Li is supposed to marry as a way to cement her position as princess.
To that end, Hui engineers his own disappearance from the capitol — and quickly finds himself a prisoner of a rebel gang. Their leader, Ye Yang — quite young and handsome himself — is puzzled by Hui’s motives, but isn’t about to look a gift hostage in the mouth, so to speak, and figures the other man’s medical expertise will come in handy. The latter becomes doubly important when Ye Yang is wounded by imperial guards while fleeing, and over time the two find they may have some common frame of reference: they are, after all, both outlaws.
Other revelations unfold within the palace walls. Jia Hua, the woman who so boldly questioned Zhi Li’s authenticity — and who figured so prominently in Zhi Li’s early memories as someone who may have tried to kill her as a child — reveals everything she knows about Zhi Li’s parentage after almost being killed to silence her. The truth is explosive enough to destroy the reputations of many a man (and woman), and for that reason Zhi Li was almost offered up not once but twice as a sacrifice on that particular altar.
It’s the sort of complexity that seems like complexity for its own sake at first, but it’s always supported by the kind of emotional underpinnings that make it convincing. We’re looking at people and not simply roles, even when their feelings for each other and the demands they make on each other are shifting and changing. This persists all the way to the end of the volume, when Zhi Li, Hui and Wu are brought together in Ye Yang’s camp: the way they’re brought there is one of the more belabored contrivances in the whole of the series, but I can forgive that when everyone involved stays firmly in character.
In all honesty, I was reluctant to begin this series; I didn’t think it would appeal to me in the slightest. Now, with only one volume left to go, I’m wildly curious to see how it ends. I think that says it all.