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I would imagine that most people would know the author Kate Furnivall from her book published in 2008, "Under The Blood Red Sky" - I have yet to read it, but even I recognise it's distinctive cover and I've read a few reviews on it praising its contents.
"The Russian Concubine" is published before the aforementioned book in 2007 and tells the story of a beautiful Russian woman, Valentina, and her fiery daughter Lydia who have been exiled from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. Valentina and Lydia are taking refuge in Junchow, China , living in poverty and unable to see a way out. With her mothers increasing addiction to alcohol, Lydia takes it upon herself to survive their situation and resorts to stealing.
When she steals a valuable ruby necklace, a young Chinese man called Chan An Lo saves her from what would be certain death. From that point on, the two are bound together, sure that they are supposed to protect each other despite their cultural differences. Lydia and Chang soon fall in love and come up against savage triads, opium running, torture and kidnap, their love is really tested to its limits. Their love for each other is unstoppable, but it will surely mean the death of both of them...
This book was truly outstanding, from the characters and content all the way through to the writing. This is historical fiction, action adventure and an epic love story rolled into one. For starters, Furnivall has chosen an interesting point in history and created some likeable, gutsy and colourful characters who really stand out against the back drop China on the brink of breakdown (or some may say that its already broken!) Already the simmering tension that has been created between the Chinese piqued my interest immediately, but the characters in this book all have their own parts to play that all tie in nicely.
Slow Burn at first...but worth it!!
At first, it took me a long time to get into the story; at 592 pages, it's a fairly epic read! The first chapter is Russia in 1917, showing how Valentina and Lydia came to be in China in the first place. This was an interesting first chapter that gave a small taster of the violence, action and fast paced plot that was about to come. This is definitely a slow burner, as the following chapters took their time in setting up the scene, with some fascinating descriptions of Chinese life at this time, from the attitudes towards foreigners, the huge divide between the rich and the poor and life in the International Settlements. Furnivall also takes her time to set up and build on the main characters, especially those of Lydia, Chang An Lo and Theo. Mostly, we hear about Lydia, and it is from Lydia's head and heart that we really enjoy the book, making it clear who's "side" we are supposed to take. Sometimes it was difficult to read about these characters and I wanted the story to move on quicker, but once the story started, it was clear why there was such a need for the slow build of characters; it cemented my like for each of them and provided a good foundation for the story that lay ahead as well as giving me as a reader a clear understanding of why things happened.
As I have mentioned, there are a few characters in this book who have their own voice and who's point of view we get to hear about, Lydia of course is the main one. At sixteen, Lydia is young, fiery and fearless. Reading about her tough life in the International Settlement was heart wrenching, and her forbidden relationship with the young Chinese Communist Chang was touching. There were also chapters where Chang's point of view was shown. Chang is an exciting character, one who knows how to defend and look after himself and a man who has strong political views. One of the most interesting parts of this book was how the relationship between Chang and Lydia develops as from the beginning he is both attracted and repulsed by her. He is amazed by her strength of character and beauty, but this is the also what repulses him; he has been brought up knowing that these "fanqui" (foreign devil) were enemies of the Chinese, their very ways disgust him, from the way Lydia tries to shake his hand (contact like this is not done in China) to the way she asks direct and personal questions. Likewise, Lydia is at first wary of Chang, believing that he is just a petty thief but soon she is willing to risk her life to save his.
Aside from Lydia and Chang, Furnivall has created some really colourful and interesting secondary characters which help shape the overall story. There is Theo Willoughby, the school headmasters who has a girlfriend who is the rich, powerful and very dangerous Chinese businessman. Theo's role in the story at first seems quite insignificant, that is until an English businessman threatens to shut down his school and he is forced into doing the Opium run. The rest then gets tied in nicely, and there are plenty of threads that will keep any reader amused throughout!
One of the most endearing relationships in "The Russian Concubine" is the strange but touching relationship between Lydia and another Russian refugee, Liev Popkov. The description of Popkov is rather an intimidating one; a huge "bear" of a man who Lydia manages to get in trouble with the police. However, over the course of the book, Popkov becomes Lydia's protector and without his help and his silent help in finding Chan An Lo, Lydia would either be dead or lost. Their relationship is really touching, especially since they can barely speak a whole sentence together due to the language barrier, yet their mutual trust for each other comes across the page clearly. I'm thrilled to find out that it looks like he will appear in future books with Lydia!
So far, I would imagine most people reading this would see it as quite a romantic book. Although this is true, Lydia and Chang's romance involves so much more that would please most readers. This book has everything from a beautiful and vivid Chinese back drop, to political rows to lots of action and plenty of violence. In fact, that would be my only criticism of this book. Today I was racing through the last of the chapters, desperate to know what would become of Chang and Lydia, eating my sandwiches at lunch, only to read a rather gruesome torture paragraph or two. The images depicted in this story aren't often so gory, but the way in which it is written evokes some strong emotions!
What makes "The Russian Concubine" so much more interesting is knowing that the author was inspired to write this after hearing her own mothers story. Her mother had a similar childhood experience of living in an international settlement in China as white Russian refugee. The passion and dedication she put into writing this book is clear for all to see and just makes the whole effect of the book that much more special.
I have read reviews that criticise the author Kate Furnivall for getting carried away and creating too many characters and therefore too many plot lines. It is true to say that "The Russian Concubine" is rich with plot lines that could run away with themselves, and yes I would say that perhaps a few of the storylines were unnecessary and added little to the story. However, I found each sub plot interesting and actually, If I imagine this book without the little sub-plots, I may have found the main story of Chan An Lo and Lydia's a tad dull and repetitive. Most threads weaved in nicely but some storylines did tend to drift off. None, however, affected the enjoyment of this book as a whole.
This book really has everything you could want from a story and provided me with a lovely bit of escapism for a while - despite the length of this book, I raced through the last half it was so action- packed. This book has bags of adventure and action, plenty of war-torn romance and sadness and a glimmers of happiness throughout. I really fell in love with this story, and I adored the characters within. I found reading about the Chinese culture fascinating and the violence and death included shocking but compelling reading. Imagine my happiness to find that there is follow-ups to Lydia's story, the book ends with a satisfactory conclusion, but it also left me wanting more. The next instalment is "The Concubines Secret" , I cannot wait to get my hands on it!