Ying-ying and Leighton are the stars of My Beautiful Enemy, the ‘main course’ of Sherry Thomas’s Heart of Blade duology. We first meet them – long before they meet each other – in the prequel, The Hidden Blade.
Set in the late 19th century, this novel examines how the couple’s childhood experiences shape them. In Peking, we see Ying-ying take centre stage in a wuxia narrative: a traditional Chinese tale that typically follows martial artists of almost superhuman abilities. In Ying-ying’s case, her life changes irrevocably when her nanny turns out to be one such martial arts hero and takes her as a pupil. Well. That would have livened up Mary Poppins. Meanwhile, back in England, we watch in horror as Leighton Atwood’s wicked uncle destroys his childhood before pursuing him to China, where Leighton escapes in search of a beloved family friend.
I would have appreciated a greater sense of an origin story here: more on Ying-ying’s training would have been good as she seems to go from 0 to 60 rather quickly. That said, The Hidden Blade is tremendous fun: fist-pumpingly feminist with a great cast of supporting characters and an utterly breath-taking action sequence at the end.
Although it is meant to be ‘the main event’ as it were, My Beautiful Enemy disappoints in comparison. We catch up with Ying-ying (now known as Catherine Blade) and Leighton just as they reconnect, eight years after their last meeting. This encounter is rather awkward because Catherine had thought she’d killed Leighton after their love affair soured and he betrayed her. It’s such a pain when that happens at formal functions.
Thomas’s writing is top notch throughout both novels, and My Beautiful Enemy certainly has its fun moments – none more fun than this:
She lowered into a crouch, then leaped up atop the table, balanced upon an upside-down teacup. (My Beautiful Enemy, p. 189)
Yes, you read that correctly. Ying-ying executes a perfect handstand on a teacup. That’s certainly how I like to conclude breakfast.
Dining table gymnastics aside, this novel is often rather dull. We spend most of the prequel dying for Ying-ying and Leighton to meet but their romance seems oddly bloodless in the end. Additionally, the finale of My Beautiful Enemy is incredibly weak. I am talking Scooby Doo levels of silliness and subtlety.
All in all, these are well-written novels that skilfully evoke both period and place and boast a fantastic heroine. The prequel is by far the stronger book, however, with the main event being married by a limp and unconvincing romance.