Sherry Thomas is one of my favorite romance authors, as evidenced by my reviews of her previous novels. I was quite excited when she announced that her August 2014 release, My Beautiful Enemy, would be inspired by wuxia. I was even more excited when she self-published a novel-length prequel for cheap. I am almost always in favor of more story, especially since Thomas promised that The Hidden Blade could stand on its own.
The Hidden Blade tells the stories of Ying-Ying and Leighton when they were just children. They live very different lives, but both are full of hardship. Ying-Ying is the bastard daughter of a courtesan. She lives in favor due to her mother’s lover, but she could be cast out at any moment. As she grows older, she starts to lose her naivete and realize just how precarious her position is. It only becomes more dangerous after she learns a servant’s secrets, secrets that lead to her taking up the sword and seeking a more active role in life.
Leighton is loved by his father, but his father has a serious secret – he is gay. Unfortunately, he has a villainous uncle who wants all of the family’s money and prestige and who has the perfect lever to get it. The happiness of Leighton’s early childhood can’t last forever either. Fortunately, he knows how to take advantage of the few opportunities he gets. (Also fortunate? His aunt-by-marriage turns out to be an awesome lady. I hope Thomas writes an entire story about her one day.) I really like the balance between Ying-Ying’s and Leighton’s stories. Leighton has more social capital, money, and other assorted means of power and opportunity, but his life ends up just as (if not more) circumscribed. Threats of terrible things hang over both of their heads.
Thomas’s writing is as lovely as ever, especially when describing the sword training and fight scenes. The things Ying-Ying and Leighton go through can be difficult to read about, but Thomas always provides her characters with small measures of hope. I would not say that The Hidden Blade stands entirely on its own, separate from My Beautiful Enemy. Ying-Ying and Leighton never meet, although he spies her briefly and one character crosses over between their stories. This enforces that the prequel stops short of the true story, not complete until the two halves of the story meet and truly come together.
However, I still think it is worth reading The Hidden Blade. It offers a thrilling, thorough backstory that enriches the romance (even though My Beautiful Enemy really can stand alone). If you are a Sherry Thomas fan, or just a particular fan of her newest romance, don’t skip this one. Just don’t expect to pick it up and not immediately want to read the romance that completes the Heart of Blade duology.)
SPOILER (highlight to read): I do take issue with the fact that all of the gay characters are dead by the end. I appreciate that Thomas included gay characters, but killing all of the gay characters is an unfortunate, pernicious trope. I’m sure Thomas didn’t do it on purpose, but it bothered me somewhat.
In the waning days of the last dynasty, in a quiet, beautiful corner of imperial Peking, a young girl’s blissful ignorance is shattered when she learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of an English adventurer and a Chinese courtesan. What future is there for such a girl? But a mysterious figure steps forward and offers to instruct her in the highest forms of martial arts–a path to a life of strength and independence. Half a world away in England, a young boy’s idyllic summer on the Sussex downs implodes with the firing of a single bullet. Torn from his family, he becomes the hostage of a urbanely sadistic uncle. He dreams of escaping to find his beloved friend–but the friend is in China, ten thousand miles away. The girl trains to be deadly. The boy flees across continents. They do not know it yet, but their lives are already inextricably bound together, and will collide one fateful night when they least expect it. THE HIDDEN BLADE is a full-length companion volume/prequel to MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY. They can each be read as standalones, but together they make for a uniquely rich and multilayered reading experience.
Read an excerpt here.
Other books in this series: