The Flower Boat Girl by Larry Feign

I was reluctant to review this book because I know very little about Chinese history and I have never been attracted to it. I am so glad I stepped outside my comfort zone because this is an extraordinary story.

Set in China in the early 19th century, this epic story revolves around Shek Yang, and the main man in her life, Cheng Yat. Shek Yang was bartered by her father as a child and scrapes a living as a prostitute on a dilapidated boat from the men in the nearby village. One day pirates raid the village when she happens to be there and she is carried off to become a slave. Despite her fighting hard enough to do him an injury, the pirate captain likes her spirit and forcefully makes her his wife. He is taciturn, rough and free with his blows. This is not a love match, but it is a delight to watch these two tough people learn to respect and trust each other.

There is more to Shek Yang than first meets the eye. She knows nothing about piracy or seafaring, but she has an instinctive knowledge of leadership and also knows a thing or two about manipulating men. After she forms a partnership with Cheng, both transcend their humble beginnings and plan to rule the China coast.

A bevy of other pirates and their leaders populate the book and they come in all different shapes, sizes and sorts – a poet among them. All are hard-core, not only fighting for plunder but intriguing against each other. To say it’s a cut-throat world is rather to state the obvious. The pages are packed with action, but the reader gets a breathing space while Shek Yang and Cheng Yat fight each other.

Kudos to the author for research. It can’t have been easy getting information on 19th century pirates and actually getting in their skin the way he has. He has not softened his pirates. They are authentic and yet we can still cheer them on. I even came to like Cheng Yat.

Violence, sexuality and obscenities are part of the package, but I highly recommended it especially for readers who want something different.

*****

The Jacobite’s Wife by Morag Edwards

Late 17th/early18th centuries, set in England/France/Scotland

Based on real people and true events, this is the story of Lady Winifred Herbert. Her parents, the Earl and Countess of Powis, are forced to leave England after supporting the Catholic King James II, being accused of treason and imprisoned in the Tower. Winifred joins them at the court of the exiles at Saint-Germain in France where she meets her future husband, William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale. All are fervent Jacobites except Winifred, who is less so.  The marriage is a happy one, and when they return to Scotland, Winifred cherishes dreams of settling down to a comfortable life and raising a family. William has other dreams that centre around the Jacobite movement.

I found Winifred to be a contradictory character. At times I wanted to root for her, and just as often I wanted to slap her. For example, she criticises William for his involvement in Scotland’s affairs instead of staying home and looking after his estate, and yet goes proudly with him to a gathering of the clans where the purpose is to organise a rebellion. Again, learning that her husband, an irresponsible but charming wastrel, is heavily in debt, she tells him to cut down on his spending, but when he buys a cute little pony and trap for them to tool around the estate in, she forgives him at once. For the first half of the book, she comes across as self-centered and self-absorbed, as when her mother dies, “How could she leave me?’ and the same when her sister enters a convent. However, without giving anything away, she redeems herself in the end.

The relationship between Winifred and Grace, her maid/companion/friend, is heartwarming and one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book.

The story is well written, with natural dialogue but few descriptions. Although it’s a slow starter, I never lost interest. I recommend it for those interested in Scotland’s independence movement and Jacobite period.

****

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