ALERT! The heroine of My Beautiful Enemy is a martial artist! She does a handstand on a teacup! She knocks an assassin off a ship by hitting him with a door!
THIS IS NOT A DRILL!
In My Beautiful Enemy, we meet Catherine Blade (Blade? Really?) on the deck of a ship. Within moments, the following is revealed – she’s a martial arts master, she cares about other people, she’s sad, her baby was murdered, and she can toss an assassin off the deck of a wave tossed-ship like it ain’t no thang. None of these are spoilers – they all happen within the first chapter. Catherine is a martial artist in what Sherry Thomas explains (in an afterword) as “depicted as they would be in wuxia novels, a genre of Chinese literature that centers on practitioners of martial arts who reach near mythical levels of power and agility”.
Catherine is on her way to England, where – surprise! She meets her ex, Captain Leighton Atwood. He is engaged to an Englishwoman but clearly has not gotten over his adventuring days with Catherine. The book jumps back and forth between 1891 (their present day, when they meet in London) and flashbacks to 1883, where they met while Leighton and Catherine were both intrepid adventurers in China and Turkmenistan. Catherine, who is half Chinese, half English, and fluent in many languages, travels in disguise as a man and spies on behalf of her Chinese father, while Leighton is spying on behalf of the British Empire.
These flashbacks are just about the most delightful thing ever. They are poetic and sexy and so, so funny. “I have always been overfond of the brothels of Kashgar”, Catherine, in disguise, announces. Leighton knows all along she is female, but she doesn’t know that he knows, cue hilarity mingled with adventure. I absolutely believed in this couple and wanted them to be together.
The parts of the book that take place in 1891 involve intrigue, danger, and heartbreak as Leighton and Catherine are terribly estranged but keep being thrown into each other’s company. Incidentally, there is no trauma directly related to Catherine’s biracial status. Her tensions with her father stem from the fact that she is not a boy and that she is not content to “act like a girl”. Her tensions with Leighton have to do with political intrigue and lack of trust. Her biracial status gives her access to languages, cultures and experiences that she probably would not otherwise have. While Catherine’s story contains many tragic elements, she’s not a “tragic mulatto”, at least not in this book.
This is a book about healing and it doesn’t skimp on introducing a lot of trauma for our characters to heal from. Any book that mentions in Chapter One that an infant was murdered is going to be a tough book, emotionally. Both characters are recovering from various forms of loss, physical injury, and emotional trauma both preceding and stemming from their interactions with each other. There’s a lot of pain in the book but it’s not depressing – the characters never lose a sense of humor, the adventurous and fantastical element lightens the atmosphere a bit, and the ultimate journey is one of love, reconciliation, empowerment, and healing.
The only criticism I have of the book is that it feels like there are huge gaps in the story. There’s a prequel, The Hidden Blade, which I plan to start reading as soon as I finish typing this review, and I expect that fills in a lot. But My Beautiful Enemy is marketed as a stand-alone even though it feels like an abridged trilogy. I could easily picture Book One being the formative years, which would establish the history between Catherine and the villain – this is a huge missing piece of My Beautiful Enemy. Book Two would be the Turkmenistan years, and Book Three would be the part in England. I’m excited about the prequel but if I’m judging My Beautiful Enemy entirely on its own merits, then the lack of background on the villain is the biggest flaw in an almost perfect novel.
This is a fun book, a painful book, and a healing book. Above all, it’s a beautiful book. Sherry Thomas is a consistently fantastic writer, in terms of her use of language. Here’s an example of prose from this book, in which Leighton provides a quick history and geography lesson:
Once, great caravans had teemed on these routes, carrying precious bolts of Chinese silk across the vast steppes of central Asia to the cast of the Caspian Sea, to Antioch, and finally to Rome, to feed the empire’s ever ravenous desire for luxury fabrics.
The rise of great ocean-faring vessels had rendered the land courses obsolete hundreds of years ago. The caravans that still plied the route were small, sometimes no more than a few camels, trading between towns. And most of the legendary cities of yore were either lost or reduced to mere shadows of the former glory.
Yet a sense of continuity still lingered in the air. Marco Polo had drunk the same sweet, cool wine as that in Leighton’s cup, made from oasis-grown white grapes. A thousand years before that, Buddhist missionaries from India had braved the same perilous paths, carrying the teachings of the Tathaga into the western provinces of China.
And here’s my favorite line:
They made love with infinite care, because they were fragile. But they also made love with infinite ferocity, because they were indomitable.
Gorgeous writing on every single level. This book is currently among my favorites. I loved everything about it, full stop.