Often I don’t find myself that pulled towards short stories or novellas, but Sherry Thomas completely captured my attention while reading The Hidden Blade.
“You don’t know men. The pain of death never stopped any man from sniffing roadside blossoms.”
Ying-ying turned on her side and rammed an elbow toward Amah’s solar plexus. “Then I will kill him in truth.”
It reminded me a lot of Wu Xia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s actually two pretty smart kids, both of which you get to see grow up. Both of their tales are sad and heart wrenching. Their lives become tragedies by the choices of the adults who love them.
A little English boy by the name of Leighton Atwood enjoys spending time with father and his father’s good friend Herb. He discovers that his father and Herb aren’t just friends. They’re in love. His father resists his relationship with Herb because of the possibility of being thrown into an Asylum again. More than anything he fears that place.
Being gay in the Victorian era wasn’t unusual or unknown of in the least, but it was illegal to be publically gay. Many were sent to asylums to be “cured” or put into jail for their homosexuality.
The way Herb and Leighton’s father’s relationship was portrayed felt very realistic and accurate for the time. I almost felt like Herb was slightly naïve in his understanding what society would do to publically gay people. It was as if he didn’t think any relatives would have a problem with them being gay and wouldn’t do anything about it.
Something happens to this couple, which leads to Leighton’s situation in the house of his uncle Curtis. He has no freedom. His uncle gets off on knowing other people’s sins. He likes to see other people unhappy.
I wanted to squish Leighton’s uncle. Kill him…like a bug.
I felt terribly sorry for Leighton. He took away his fucking books; the only thing that was keeping him even slightly sane.
At this point I was glaring at my kindle.
The only issue I had with this was that the build up of the awful things that Leighton’s uncle did was unresolved satisfactorily. It felt empty or unfinished. Or built up in a way that leads the reader to believe there would be a bigger climax to the story.
Ying Ying’s Story:
Forget the silly name. I mean… Ying Ying? Sounds ridiculously, right? Just throw that fucking raised eyebrow off your face. Okay. I know how it sounds.
Ying Ying’s the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese concubine and a foreign Devil. Not a real devil, that’s just what the Chinese referred to White men. They didn’t like foreigners, apparently. Ying Ying is eight years old and her mother isn’t in the best of health. She knows that realistically, no respectable man will marry the daughter of a foreign devil. All she’s has to look forward to is becoming the third concubine of an important man.
One night she witnesses a thief all in black on the roof. It’s her nurse Amah. Amah tells Ying Ying she’s her master now. She teaches Ying Ying martial arts. The great thing about this is that Ying Ying doesn’t just tell us these things, she shows us. We don’t get told about the lessons. We see them:
In Ying-ying’s rooms, silence.
Then, sound: a barely perceptible disturbance of the air.
Ying-ying lifted the painted silk fan in her hand and blocked the incoming object a handspan from her face. She spun around and knocked another one that was coming for her shoulder. Then another, aimed at her knees.
The tiny missiles kept coming; she kept deflecting them, her mind blank, her concentration absolute.
Ying Ying is a smart ass eight year old. She’s witty and thinks about her actions. But she’s also inexperienced in life and has much to learn.
As Ying Ying grows into a young woman she becomes adept at the martial arts. But the eye of the son of Da-ren, her mother’s provider, wanders to the beautiful face of Ying Ying. He’s a big fat baby. He has tantrums when he doesn’t something he wants. See:
He lifted a braid of her hair. “Surely she will understand if you say I detained you.”
“She has her orders directly from Da-ren himself to strictly watch my every step. I’m afraid she’ll yield only when he commands differently.”
The lordling tore off an embroidered amulet sachet he wore at his waist and hurled it against the nearest wall. “Da-ren! Da-ren! My whole life I’ve had to listen to him. Everything I want, he stands in my way.”
I have to mention this: I really loved how Sherry Thomas showed us the difference between being gay in China and being gay in England, through the eyes of the characters. When Master Gordon, Ying Ying’s English teacher, asks her how gay people are treated in China she tells him about the Majordomo having an affair with an opera singer.
“Does Da-ren know it?”
“Everyone knows it.” His isolation saddened her. She had learned within weeks of coming into the compound. Not that people didn’t snicker behind the majordomo’s back, but before him they dared not show the least disrespect.
I really loved the character of Ying Ying. She’s smart, witty, and literally kick ass.
This novella focused on Ying Ying and Leighton’s tragic childhoods. It felt as if this is the beginning of their story. Then, in novel we’ll get to understand the crux of the plot. However, this novel was more about the characters than it was about plot. I couldn’t find a straight through plot. Thomas is usually really great at plot; therefore I don’t think that’s what she wanted to do here. This novella is all character, emotion, and action.