An interesting religion, a unique setting a cross-culture romance between an American and a Manchurian all combine to make what would otherwise solid 3-star historical into a delightful 4-star read.
Joanna Crane is a pampered American transplant who rides out to defy her father and join the Boxer rebellion, only to find that the boxers do not differentiate her from any other white oppressor, and seek to treat her accordingly. But the solution carries its own set of problems when Zou Tun, ostensibly a Shaolin Monk, rescues her and finds that she's observational enough to uncover and expose his true secret. With not a lot of options open to him, he hides her at a Taoist temple, and it is there that their journey towards enlightenment begins.
The religion in question is the Taoist ideal of enlightenment through ecstacy...that heaven may only be attained by perfectly balancing a woman's yin with a man's yang. It is a path Joanna and Zou set out on together, leading to a lot of very sensual scenes. Also interwoven is the mystery of Zou's role in powerplays of the empire, and the complexities of an interracial romance.
All in all it's some pretty heavy lifting, but in Hungry Tigress, it's handled well. Lee does an excellent job of creating two likeable protagonists, and - despite what they're put through, and what they put each other through - creating a real tenderness between them. It's easy to relate to the characters as they fight their own individual biases when it comes to race, and love plays an important role not only as the glue that holds them together, but also as the key to their enlightenment.
As for the sensual path to enlightenment: Hungry Tigress is very heavy on the sensuality, but not particularly risque. The sensual scenes flow smoothly, though, and almost never seem forced. Using the Taoist terms for body parts frees the text from a number of wince-worthy romance phrases, but heavy reliance on terms like "his dragon's cloud" and "her cinnabar cave", the terminology comes off as no less cliche'd. In a couple of scenes the spirituality itself is handled a bit more forthrightly than I would have liked, but overall I still enjoyed exploring it: It definitely added an interesting dimension to the story, and I wanted to know more about it.
The plot is at points contrived (possibly there's a bit much fo it for a 400 page book), and the sheer amount of metaphor can occasionally be stilting, but in a sea of historicals set in England, Scotland, and the American west, Hungry Tigress stands out because of its new philosophy and interesting setting. And more importantly, novelty aside it is memorable for its likealbe leads, and the emotional journey they face. Its honest if slightly westernized view of Chinese culture circa 1898 is welcome, and I appreciated the chance to explore somewhere I hand't been before through characters I felt I knew.
4 stars out of 5, and a good chance I'll be reading Desperate Tigress when it comes out.