The Hidden Blade is the prequel to Sherry Thomas’ book My Beautiful Enemy. The only problem I had with My Beautiful Enemy was that it alluded to a lot of backstory that was barely sketched in. The Hidden Blade provides much of that backstory and is beautiful in its own right.
The Hidden Blade is about the childhoods of two lonely children who do not meet (until My Beautiful Enemy) but who are connected. Their stories are very different, but both children grow up in mysterious, confusing families, both children learn to help their loved ones keep secrets, and both children face great uncertainty and instability.
The story begins in 1873. Ying-ying is the daughter of the concubine of an important Chinese official. This official, who is referred to by the honorific Da-ren, is not Ying-Ying’s father. Ying-ying knows nothing of her father except that he was not Chinese. Ying-ying has a strict Amah who looks after her. When Ying-ying discovers that Amah has a secret, Amah takes Ying-ying on as a martial arts pupil. This proves to be vital for Ying-ying’s survival as a girl with low status whose world is terribly fragile.
Meanwhile, in Sussex, England, Leighton has a father who loves him as well as an adoring uncle who is not actually related to Leighton but who spends a great deal of time with Leighton’s father. Leighton’s mother has another, younger son who doesn’t resemble Leighton at all, and when Leighton’s mother goes out of town, as she often does, she takes the younger son with her but not Leighton, even though she clearly loves Leighton. When Leighton puts the pieces of his parents’ lives together, he’s not shocked and he becomes adept at helping his family hide their situation. Like Ying-ying, his world is terribly fragile and, like Ying-ying, he must fight to survive, although he must rely entirely on his wits.
Ying-ying’s setting is unusual to a modern Western reader, but no more or less so than Leighton’s. Great care is taken to establish the worlds of the characters and the rules that they must follow – not only rules established by their guardians but also rules established by their society. Both England and China are societies that are hierarchical – ones in which your social status means a great deal and one in which disobeying certain taboos can mean death. Neither country is glamourized or vilified (although certain aspects of each culture are presented as admirable and others as awful).
The Hidden Blade is very much a prequel as opposed to a stand-alone book, in the sense that it ends on a big cliffhanger. Fortunately you can progress immediately to My Beautiful Enemy – they read well as two parts of a single, very long, book. There’s still a big gap of time between the close of one book and start of the other and I wonder if we’ll get another prequel – or maybe I’m just greedy because I love reading about these characters. The Hidden Blade is not a romance. It takes the main characters of My Beautiful Enemy from their childhood to early adulthood but the characters don’t meet although they do cross paths at one terribly haunting moment.
The website TV Tropes coined the term “The Trauma Conga Line”. This trope is when the main character suffers a cascade of one terrible event after another. I loved the prequel for its wonderfully drawn, varied characters, its setting, and the fact that it manages to equally vividly evoke both 19th century China and 19th century England. The story is not cynical. Although Leighton and Ying-ying are often isolated and abused, someone always appears to give them some hope and assistance. The reader is left with the sense is that while there is great evil in the world, there is also great good.
But Ying-ying and Leighton are both caught in an epic trauma conga line. Frankly towards the end of Ying-ying’s story I thought the Conga Line had become more of a trauma mosh pit (it veered right on the brink of being melodramatic but saved itself through a realistic and heartfelt description of grief and resilience). The story is not for the faint of heart. Have tissues.
For people who want to know if they should read The Hidden Blade first, I’d recommend it, but it depends on how patient you are. If you want a more traditional romance experience, then My Beautiful Enemy works fine on its own. I read it first, and I adored it. But The Hidden Blade provides a great deal of character development and context, in addition to being a very good book, period. So stock up on the tissues – it’s worth it.