Title: Erasing Shame
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
Amazon buy link: Buy Link Erasing Shame
Genre: M/M historical
Length: Novel (350 pages)
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: An ambitious and sweeping epic set in an alternate history ancient China.
The son of a Han traitor who had let the Xianbei Mongols invade the borders, Jiang Shicai swears to restore his family’s honor, hoping to better the Hans’ lives through peaceful means. He believes violence is never the answer, but to gain respect, he finds himself fighting for the Xianbei.
Ten years later, an annoying but handsome playboy, Dugu Xuechi, arrives as the incompetent new military inspector of Shicai’s region. Shameless, irresponsible, and obnoxious, Xuechi tests Shicai’s patience almost every second. Despite their mutual dislike, Shicai finds himself drawn to the capricious man, especially when he sees the resemblance between Xuechi and his deceased best friend. Yet Xuechi’s self-destructive behavior and refusal to accept help require attention that distracts Shicai from his goal for peace–and it doesn’t help that Xuechi is Shicai’s strongest political opposition. Haunted by a childhood promise he never had the chance to fulfill, Shicai must choose between his feelings and his values.
As a child, Jiang Qing was sent as a hostage to the imperial capital to become the playmate of the Crown Prince, Lan Yu. At first wary of the young prince, Qing soon realises that Yu is lonely, both because of his rank and also because of his intelligence. Over time, the two boys become best friends.
Though Lan Yu’s grandfather was a wise emperor, his successor, Yu’s father, is a wastrel more interested in spending money on lavish parties than on maintaining the Rong Empire and caring for its subjects. In the north, the Xianbei (Mongolian) tribes march against their southern neighbours. Disheartened by the corruption of the Empire he serves, Qing’s father allows the Xianbei warriors into his province without resistance.
This act of treachery brings about the collapse of the Rong Empire. The imperial family are killed, except the most beautiful women who are forced into the new emperor’s harem or given as brides to Xianbei nobles. Yu is also spared, and for a while he stays in contact with Qing, now returned to his home. Qing swears that he’ll protect Yu, no matter what.
Now an adult, Qing receives the courtesy name Shicai. Under the new Huai Empire ruled by the Xianbei, the Jiang family are prosperous, but are considered to be traitors to the Han Chinese and are mistrusted by their own people. When Shicai hears that Yu has killed himself, he abandons his plans to rescue his friend and instead becomes a soldier. He’s sent to the front to cement the new Empire’s borders, and despite the shame of his family name, he’s a popular and respected man.
Then Dugu Xuechi arrives. The adopted son of a respected Xianbei courtier and his Han wife, Xuechi is a playboy obsessed with his looks, with wine, and with women. Sent to take command of Shicai’s men, he’s more hindrance than help and takes great delight in needling Shicai. And yet in battle, Xuechi is an expert strategist and a ferocious fighter. Despite their animosity, Shicai enjoys getting the better of Xuechi, and although they’re never friends, occasionally they’re lovers and at times they almost understand one another.
The attraction confuses Shicai, especially when the new Crown Prince, a sadistic man named Tuoba Qizhen, shows a predatory interest in Xuechi. For a while Shicai has suspected that Xuechi is none other than Lan Yu, but when the extent of the secret is revealed, terrible consequences must be faced – and Shicai must choose between love and honour.
Erasing Shame is a difficult book to review. It took me a long time to get into it, and a large part of my struggle was due to the narrative style. In this genre I’m accustomed to deep third person POV, and this is told in omniscient third. There’s few sensory descriptions, hardly any reference to place, and I have little idea of how the characters look. Motivations for actions are given, but I don’t feel I really know any of the characters. I can understand why they act the way they do, but in terms of them being real, living characters that jump off the page, they’re not there.
The narrative style is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of this book. Everything is told rather than shown, which creates an emotional distance and even a detachment between the reader and the story. In that respect it’s like many mainstream bestsellers, where the characters are ciphers and the forward action is what takes precedence (e.g. a Dan Brown book). In this instance, the point of the story is not so much the relationship between Shicai and Xuechi, but how their relationship plays into the power struggle between the ruling Xianbei and the Han Chinese as they plan rebellion. This is not a romance except for in the oldest sense of the word, and as such it has a lot in common with the ancient Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
If the characters are ciphers, Shicai is the easiest to understand. He’s the hero, an idealist who wants to regain his family honour. He believes that his father did the right thing in allowing the Xianbei to invade. The Rong Empire was corrupt and the taxes were harming the poor. Shicai works with the Xianbei to promote a centralised system of government that unites the two cultures, believing that a stable reign can bring prosperity to everyone. He doesn’t want to rebel and cause more hardships for the innocent, but his desire to do his duty blinds him to other realities and possibilities.
Xuechi is more complex. At first he’s presented as an obnoxious, frippery character, but he has several layers and many secrets. His purpose is revenge, not just against the Xianbei who took everything from him, but also against Shicai and against himself. Here I should warn readers that the book contains scenes of non con and dub con. The victim of multiple rapes by Qizhen, much of Xuechi’s self-loathing comes from the fact that he ‘enjoyed’ the abuse. This becomes a major issue in the latter part of the book and personally I was glad of the detached ‘telling’ style at this point.
This is one of Dreamspinner’s ‘Bittersweet Dreams’ titles, so you already know there’s no happy ending. The resolution is foreshadowed well in advance, and though things aren’t actually resolved at all, that’s real life. Erasing Shame is a long book (350 pages), but I read it in a day because of the simplicity of the narrative style. I wish the editor had removed the anachronisms – people face-palming, mention of trash cans – plus the language at times seemed overly colloquial. Overall, the style reminded me very much of translated Chinese or Japanese BL/yaoi books. I’ve read Taiwanese BL stories that are very similar in mood, style and theme to this. It’s quite specific, so yaoi fans may enjoy the use of tropes and the style of presentation here.
In the end I’m left with mixed feelings. The scale of the events detailed in the story set it apart, but I’m missing an emotional connection to the characters. I felt – distantly, in an academic sense – for Xuechi, but at the same time I’m glad we weren’t in deep third POV because the angst would’ve been unbearable. The colloquialisms irritated me, as did the use of footnotes. And yet I kept on reading because I wanted to know how it ended, and that’s probably the greatest compliment a reader can give an author, regardless of any other criticism.