Tuesday, December 29, 2015

REVIEW: The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall

The Russian Concubine
by Kate Furnivall

Publisher: Berkley
Page Count: 517
Release Date: June 27, 2007
Format: Trade Paperback

How got: personal library; bought via local library used book sale

First attention getter: the interracial romance angle


From GoodReads:

A sweeping novel set in war-torn 1928 China, with a star-crossed love story at its center.

In a city full of thieves and Communists, danger and death, spirited young Lydia Ivanova has lived a hard life. Always looking over her shoulder, the sixteen-year-old must steal to feed herself and her mother, Valentina, who numbered among the Russian elite until Bolsheviks murdered most of them, including her husband. As exiles, Lydia and Valentina have learned to survive in a foreign land.

Often, Lydia steals away to meet with the handsome young freedom fighter Chang An Lo. But they face danger: Chiang Kai Shek's troops are headed toward Junchow to kill Reds like Chang, who has in his possession the jewels of a tsarina, meant as a gift for the despot's wife. The young pair's all-consuming love can only bring shame and peril upon them, from both sides. Those in power will do anything to quell it. But Lydia and Chang are powerless to end it.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

Kate still impresses with her skills at world building, characterization, and relationship dynamics. I’ve only read one book by her so far, one of her newer works. This one seems to be the one she’s known most for so I’m glad I was able to experience it.

And “experience” is the correct term to use! The reader can literally smell the Chinese incense scents, see the vivid reds and golds of Chinese architecture and fabrics, and hear the calls of stall owners and shops of the markets. All of this is interposed over the rigid, orderly world of British society that ruled this area of China at the time. Then there’s Lydia, her mom, and the other Russian refugees caught in between, struggling to survive in a world caught between posh British who look down on them and poor Chinese who resent them. The author excels in making every bit of this world shine and breathe with life.

Furnivall is almost without peer when it comes to characterization. She does an incredible job balancing out virtues with vices. I can always count on her people being very human. There’s really only one exception to this in the book, and even then it’s not that blaring. In her previous work I’ve read, she gave one of her characters so many foibles that I ended up not liking them at all.

In this one, she’s made one of her characters almost too perfect. Chang is almost the perfect paragon: virtuous, courageous, principled, dedicated, and awesome at martial arts. He also gives his heart whole-heartedly when he falls in love. His love for Lydia does fall into the “obsessive” end of the spectrum at times so that saves him from being too perfect. Yet, Furnivall does such a great job with everything else that Chang doesn’t blare out that much, at least to me. I still enjoyed reading him.

I loved reading Furnivall’s examination of different relationship types as well. Friendships, lovers, husband/wife, father/daughter, teacher/student…. All are explored in depth within the story, really digging into how people relate to each other under different circumstances. She gives her readers an eye into how same relationship types differ as well, like how Lydia’s/Chang’s relationship differed from the teacher’s and Mei’s. How different circumstances can come to bear and steer and relationship into a different direction was fascinating.

Despite some aspects of Chang’s character making him read too perfect at times, I felt this was a very strong work by Furnivall. It definitely reads as the work that made her name. She makes her readers live the setting, feel for the characters, and just get sucked into the story. I’d recommend this one to any lovers of historical fiction or just a great story. Can’t wait to dig into more by this author!

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