“My Splendid Concubine” was the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
In the sequel, “Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine”, he was the only foreigner the Emperor of China trusted.
Both novels have come together as one in “The Concubine Saga”.
In reading The Concubine Saga by Lloyd Lofthouse, I was struck by the fact that I was exactly the audience intended for this book. I love me some historical fiction, especially when done well. I also, unabashedly, love sexyfuntimes in my reading material. When I first received the description of this book, I was hooked. Sir Robert Hart, a Westerner who spent his entire 54 year professional career in China in the late 19thand early 20th centuries? A man who deeply respected the Chinese culture and successfully brought Western modernizations to China, while at the same time garnering, and keeping, the respect of the Chinese government? And one who, for ten years, kept a Chinese concubine who many saw as his cultural instructor into the Chinese mind and language? Wahoo! I couldn’t wait to see what the author could do with material like this.
To my mind, historical fiction takes license with the personal and inner lives and thoughts of its characters, but sticks very close to the facts in all other things. And if, for the sake of narration, shortcuts are taken, then they are acknowledged, very specifically, by the author. I had huge problems with the historical license taken in this book. I could forgive that, if the rest of the story was well written and entertaining, but for me, it was not.
My first problem came right at the beginning (Kindle loc. 68). Hart is offered a harlot for the equivalent of 33 pounds, and he is shocked by how cheap that is. Keep in mind that this is in 1854, and many people were living off of less than that a year So, I did some research (What? I’m a historian. It’s what I do, people) and discovered that 33 pounds is the equivalent of 2,013 pounds today, making his low priced hooker a whopping $3,151.75! Cheap? I think not. And then, two paragraphs later, he states that he’d “been raised to respect women as equals-not as property”. WTF? No, he wasn’t, not this delightful 19thcentury son of a preacher. Victorian women had very little in the way of rights. I get that this is the author’s way of setting up conflict between Western and Eastern viewpoints. I just think there were already enough, historically accurate, conflicts that Mr. Lofthouse could’ve used instead of this manufactured one.
The book also made serious errors about travel time from England to China. He has a character who was castrated in the hopes of working in the Forbidden City, didn’t get the job, and is now out of luck. In reality, if you were hired to work in the Forbidden City, then you were castrated (unless you were a soldier). He names the Santai Dynasty as the oldest known, when in fact the oldest is the Xia, and I could find no mention of anything called the Santai Dynasty at all. All of these things might not bother most readers, but for me, they just grabbed hold and yanked me right out of the story.
For those who can deal with the historical inaccuracies, there is some good story here. As I got into the latter half of the book, things moved much more quickly and believably. However, I find the author too fond of the info-dump, telling rather than showing. The facts don’t move the story along; they aren’t interwoven within the story, which makes it bog down. Also, there was a lack of connection to the monumental things going on around the main character. How the heck could he be spending over 12 hours a day studying the language, doing his job, and then still be completely unaware of the Taiping Rebellion until it (literally) blows up in his face? I found myself alternately bored, angry, cringing over the so called love scenes (not sexy, not fun, not romantic, not…anything), or laughing. And not in a good way. If this had been billed as straight fantasy (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?), I could have done it. But don’t tell me you’ve spent nine years researching the subject and then get the most basic elements wrong.
I received a copy of this book in return for participating in the Premier Virtual Author Book Tour. All opinions are my own. Want to check out the rest of the tour? Gohere