The Courtesan: Biographical historical fiction in the voice of a tragic fairy tale

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Though its voice is reminiscent of a tragic fairy tale, Alexandra Curry’s debut novel The Courtesan is actually a work of biographical historical fiction.

The story begins in 1881 with the execution of young Sai Jinhua’s father and her subsequent sale to a brothel. Under the cruel eye of Lao Mama, Jinhua endures footbinding and “bed business” with the support of her maid Suyin. The two girls become like sisters to one another until the haunted Sub-chancellor Hong makes Jinhua his concubine, taking her away from Suyin and brothel life.

When her new husband is asked to serve the Chinese empire as an ambassador to Vienna, Jinhua accompanies him on the journey, where she is drawn to European culture in a way he does not understand. Defying her husband’s wishes, she obsesses over learning German and even begins to fall for a Prussian count.

In keeping with the tragic fairy tale style, Jinhua does not have the blessing of a happily ever after.

She returns to a changed China as a changed woman, and her new-found Western sympathies threaten herself and those dear to her under the rise of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists.

From the beginning, it is clear that Curry conducted a lot of research for the novel. She pulls idioms from the German as well as the Chinese language. She threads other historical figures through Jinhua’s story and holds to her understanding of those figures. Her depiction of Chinese and Viennese culture of the late 1800s is rich enough that I can imagine it without much difficulty.

Still, The Courtesan is not Sai Jinhua’s story—it is what Sai Jinhua’s story might have been. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Curry filled in the holes and questions of Jinhua’s story with her own imagination and interpretation. This did not deter my enjoyment of the story, but those who prefer historical fact over historical fiction might not find the book so pleasurable as a result.

One of my favorite traits of the book—second only to Curry’s fairy tale voice—is her constant movement between characters’ perspectives. While most of the book is told in third person limited from Jinhua’s angle, other chapters explore the minds of side characters like Suyin and Jinhua’s Viennese maid.

My favorite chapters, though, are the ones that tapped into the viewpoint of characters who stand in the way of Jinhua’s desires. The first chapter, for example, details the death of Jinhua’s father from the executioner’s eyes. Other chapters look through the lenses of Jinhua’s father’s First Wife, the go-between who brought Jinhua to the brothel, Lao Mama, and Sub-chancellor Hong’s First Wife.

The constant movement between characters humanizes those who don’t deserve to be humanized and adds gravity to the novel.

That is not to say the book lacks gravity without these chapters; on the contrary, it takes every grim turn a story can take.

The scenes of footbinding and “bed business” are graphic and characters—particularly those from the brothel—swear intensely. These details made the book difficult to read, but I believe they’re necessary for the portrayal of Jinhua’s environment in this novel.

The most important judge of any historical fiction piece, in my opinion, is that the reader wants to learn more about the figures and events covered in the piece by the end than they did when they began.

For this reason especially, I belief The Courtesan is a success. I’m now far more interested in Sai Jinhua the events leading up to the Boxer Rebellion than I was before reading the novel. I’ve already begun poking around to see what others believe to be the true story of Jinhua and to learn more about the Boxer Rebellion.

Though I love the novel’s style and believe it to be a successful work of historical fiction, the novel fell short in the realism of its main character. Jinhua herself is ever-changing—a trait Curry likely instilled to emphasize her “many lives.” It may be less poetic, but I believe the depiction of Jinhua as having one life with many phases would have saved her character from frequent contortion.

Aside from this fault in Jinhua’s character, The Courtesan is a masterfully written novel with a great love for tragedy.

Recommendation: Fans of Amy Tan, Chinese fairy tales, and the historical context of this novel will likely enjoy it.

I would not recommend this book to victims of abuse or those sensitive to a gritty narrative.

The Courtesan will be available for purchase September 8th.

The Pros and the Cons of The Wrath and the Dawn

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: I was so ready to love this book. I mean, it’s an adaptation of one of my favorite fairy tale collections. One Thousand and One Nights may be the most misogynistic story I’ve read, but in spite of everything I love Scheherazade.

In a brief summary, the original story is about a king who discovers his wife is cheating on him with slaves and decides to wed a new girl each night (and, yes, that also means consummating the marriage) and kill her in the dawn. Because, you know, all women are evil. Then the clever Scheherazade volunteers to marry this mass murder in order to prevent more deaths. She tells him a story each night and leaves it on a cliffhanger so he has to let her live until she finishes the story the next night. Many of the fairy tales are familiar (like this somehow less sexist version of Sleeping Beauty) and *spoiler* the king pardons her in the end. So though I don’t like the depiction of women as evil creatures, I love that Scheherazade steps up for her fellow women and is clever enough to come up with a plan to postpone her death day after day after day.

From Renee Ahdieh’s adaptation of the book, I think she is equally fascinated with the character Scheherazade (whom she calls Shahrzad or Shazi). I love this main character Ahdieh has recreated; she’s just as brave, cunning, and sharp as I had hoped. Her sharp tongue made me smile more than once and I find her individuality refreshing.

I’m also really glad this adaptation didn’t try to make the story white. Ahdieh paints ancient Middle Eastern culture beautifully.

BUT I can’t base my rating off just the protagonist and the story concept.

While I love Shazi and think Tariq, Jalal, Khalid, and Despina are well-defined characters, many of the other characters lacked development. It would have been better, for example, if Ahdieh wrote more between Shazi and Shiva. As it is, I know very little about Shiva aside from the fact that she was kind and much loved. But what about this girl would lead Shazi to put her life on the line to avenge her death? Shiva is Shazi’s main motivator (at least to start) but I don’t know enough about her to relate to Shazi.

Also, I know absolutely nothing about Shazi’s sister, Irsa. Perhaps she will play more of a role in the second book, but I don’t see the point of her now.

Shazi’s father, Jahandar, is a bit of a mystery, as well. I only know what motivates him but it doesn’t seem to fit together well for me. The image I have of him in the beginning changes very quickly. Without giving anything away, I feel like his character should’ve changed when he heard Shazi’s vengeance plans, not after, when it would’ve been too late. It’s too convenient for the plot as it currently stands.

Tariq’s friend Rahim isn’t well-defined, either. He doesn’t have much of a purpose other than to agree to whatever Tariq suggests (or disagree and provide friendly banter to further define Tariq). I hope to see him play a larger role in the second book, as well.

Tariq’s rebellion isn’t fully-formed, either. Shiva’s father’s involved, which is made out to be important, but he doesn’t really do anything. Tariq wants to rally support but *spoiler* he doesn’t even use that support. Maybe it’ll make sense in the next book, but I didn’t see the point of bringing it up in this book–just save it for later if it’s important then.

While I love that the plot changes the character of the king into less of a jerk (and women to be less unfaithful), I can’t help but wish it had more. More magic, more wit, more royalty.

And perhaps my wish for more will be granted in the sequel. Regardless, this book could’ve had more in places. Magic, for example, is really only important for Jahandar’s role, but *spoiler* it’s revealed that Shazi has magic. And that reveal could’ve packed a punch, but it felt more like a poke. Like, oh, cool I have magic. Oh, cool, I can make this rug fly. It’s not like that would be useful to kill this guy I want vengeance on or visit my family and tell them I’m okay or explain everything to my ex. Nope. Not at all. 

Moreover, Khalid, though well-defined, was not the burdened, intelligent heartthrob I hoped he would be. For someone who’s supposedly a good strategist, Khalid doesn’t let his wife know his big secret, which *spoiler* isn’t even his fault. He could’ve done more, yes, but it’s not like he killed her or caused the miscarriage.  For all the hype, I hoped Khalid’s reason for killing so many women was his own fault. As it stands, I don’t think he would be so protective of something–especially when Shazi’s the one asking (and when she has death on her mind).

I can overlook a couple plot holes–it is based on a fairy tale, after all–but unreasonable or underdeveloped characters and misused suspense? That’s something I can’t ignore.

Recommendation: It doesn’t give readers a play-by-play of Shazi and Khalid in bed, its implications are clear. Not explicit, but certainly not a family read-aloud and probably best fit for ages 15 and up.

This book is best for anyone who loves fairy tale adaptations, Middle Eastern culture, romance, and sassy female leads. While it’s not as deep as I’d hoped, it makes for a good light read.