“It was all mixed up for him — sex and death and despair. It was all mixed up for me as well. It always had been.”
This is as perfect a quote to encapsulate Princess Shanyin: The Complete Obsession Saga by Liliana Lee (aka Jeannie Lin) as exists. This historical erotic romance (which is, actually, three separate novellas, though you can buy them as one set) is so many things all at once that trying to tease them out and make them plain for a review seems an almost insurmountable task. This is, in short, a breathtaking story written in gorgeous prose that demands attention and, when you give it, completely absorbs you.
The series is told in first person by Princess Shanyin, who, when we first meet her, is the sister of the depraved teenaged emperor of China. The first novella – The Obsession – is based on “the historical account of Princess Shanyin,” Lin says on her blog, who was famous for “a harem of 30 concubines.” The novella opens with Shanyin seeing the aristocratic Chu Yuan at court and she is immediately attracted to him. She convinces her brother to give her Yuan and he agrees, but only for 10 days. Yuan resists Shanyin’s advances and a battle of wills ensues. I don’t want to spoil how the first novella ends or what exactly happens in the other two so I will leave the plot summary there.
The novellas are erotica and the sex throughout delivers on the promise of that genre. But sex plays a very specific and important role in Shanyin’s story, not simply a device to titillate. As the quote that opens this review shows, the sex is often dark. The dynamics of power at play between the many characters complicate issues of consent and, fair warning, there are multiple scenes that are rape scenes. But all of this reads as Lee attempting to show how power, sex, and pleasure were messy notions in a world ruled by emperors, plagued with violence, and patriarchal at its core. In turn, ideas of monogamy, jealousy, love, bodily autonomy are also messy in these stories. And even as we view all of this through Shanyin’s point of view and in her words, she is not likable the entire time and sometimes is the very one abusing her power, denying others’ consent. But a credit to Lee’s storytelling, I never gave up on Shanyin and even in her worst moments, I was able to find empathy for the character despite hating her choices and the justifications for them.
These three novellas are, in a loose sense, a romance and, like that genre demands, there is a happily ever after. But the unsettling nature of the entire series left me feeling both emotionally wrung out and overly stimulated. It echoed a moment in the third novella – The Fulfillment – when Yuan tells Shanyin to leave his home because “there must be some place far away where you can find your peace.” Her response: ““I’m already at peace,” I said, agitated.”