Lady Ling Suyin is a retired imperial consort, in fact the Precious Consort, famed in song and legend as the most beautiful woman in the empire,... as well as the conniving she-demon who seduced an emperor away from his duty. Having shared the bed of a god, it is not suitable for any mere mortal man to have her so she is destined to while away her remaining days alone in the mansion the August Emperor built for her far from the imperial capital....
Of course how many days that might be is open to question. Imperial concubines tend not to have long retirements. If enemies from her court days don't finish her, her secrets will, and now the most feared and unpredictable of the warlords, the old emperor's former "enforcer" himself, is coming for her.
Iron discipline and cold calculation have made that warlord, Li Tao, the success he is today, yet here he is acting upon whim. A deliberately vague anonymous warning has sent him racing far from his regional stronghold to offer his "protection" to what should have been a forgotten castoff, yet he'd intercepted assassins approaching her home, assassins who'd made sure to die before they could be questioned.
Someone wanted her dead, someone else wanted her alive, and now he's been lured into the middle of it.
When Jeannie Lin announced that the hero of the sequel to Butterfly Swords would be the villain of that previous novel, I, no doubt like most readers, was utterly flabbergasted. How could Ms. Lin POSSIBLY redeem this cruel, unrelenting man? Well, it has been an interesting process.
To begin with Li Tao turns out to be a much more complicated man than he first appears, perhaps more complicated than he even knows (or is willing to admit). He claims that "Loyalty means nothing to me" and claims to be "loyal to no one", and with the exception of the dead former emperor, this is largely true when it comes to alleged superiors or peers, but he can be quite loyal to those who follow or depend upon him... so long as they remain strictly loyal to him. He who proudly refuses to proclaim his loyalty to the current emperor will not tolerate disloyalty himself. He despises honor and sentiment as unpredictable at best, utterly false at worst; he openly states that he is not an honorable man; yet the fact that he strictly adheres to his own peculiar code of honor is obvious to everyone but himself. He claims to possess no sense of duty, but duty (as he sees it) clearly matters more to him than almost anything else. Finally, a man who defies everyone will not tolerate defiance.
That such a bundle of contradictions would be troubled by bringing the infamous Precious Consort into his home surprises no one but himself. She was trained from the day her parents sold her in how to manipulate and control men for her benefit... and her very survival. Of course her infuriating captor would be the only man who can see right through the poise of the professional courtesan down to the frightened girl underneath; the irony is that he likes what he sees!
My review title comes from the symptoms of tension Warlord Tao experiences as he attempts to deal with his collapsing position. Utterly lacking in the skills of court intrigue, he finds himself losing influence to and risking annihilation by rivals with far inferior military skills. Suyin offers tantalizing possibilities for the relief of his tension while at the same time materially adding to it with her own scheming for survival. He negotiates one night with her in hopes of getting her out of his system, then a month, but it doesn't seem to be working. Fact is, he could truly have used someone with diplomatic skills like her, if only he'd have been willing to listen to her, if only she could have come up with something. But it's too late now. His past secrets and her past secrets have doomed them both,...
or so it would seem. This reader experienced a growing pain between the eyes himself as he tried to figure out how the author was going to extricate her heroes from the ever growing obstacles to a HEA she piled upon them,... then things really got hopeless. She'd about convinced me there couldn't be one, but she's fooled me before, so the question was, which way was she fooling me now?... Yeesh, time for another aspirin!
IMHO it isn't absolutely necessary to have read the previous parts of this series: The Taming of Mei Lin and Butterfly Swords in order to understand what is going on in this book, but it would probably help, especially the latter. Besides, they are a lot of fun! The somewhat parallel The Lady's Scandalous Night on the other hand should be read afterward.
Note: I received this ARC from NetGalley in return for agreeing to review it.