Title: Master of the Idle Clouds | 闲云公子
Author: Yu Qing
Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ | 1.5
Here’s the thing: I really like this novella. I still really enjoy this novella. I plan to make so many edits for this novella that I drown in them. But my god, in good conscience there is no way I can ignore some of its massive problems.
Which brings me to prelude #2: how can something that went so right in the first 3/5 of this novella so quickly take a turn for the worse in the last 2/5th of it? It was meant to be a romantic comedy, so why is the last 2/5th so determinedly unfunny?
Huangfu Yun is the Guardian of the Left in the Baiming Sect, which is known among the mainstream Chinese warriors and gallants as the Demon Cult. Orphaned from youth due to infighting within the sect, Huangfu Yun learned how to protect herself, to avoid attention in order to survive until adulthood. But when she was fourteen, she accidentally crossed paths with Gongsun Yun, a disciple from the Yun Family Manor, who are in charge of compiling histories. In saving his life, she accidentally brought him into her debt and left a deep impression on him. Six years later, she and her slave He Zai enter the Chinese heartland in order to attend a funeral, and her path crosses Gongsun Yun’s again, and this time, he’s less willing to let her go.
Here’s my bottom line with this novella: it has an utterly conventional hero but an utterly unconventional heroine, and the narrative walks around in circles as she walks around in circles trying to talk herself out of liking someone. She’s not someone who cares too much for standards of moral behaviour, but she cares a lot about survival. Her relationship with Gongsun Yun and her relationship with He Zai are quite fraught, and the story itself is adorable enough that it left a fairly lasting impression––I first read this book via audio a few years ago, but I wanted to read it personally, so I had my dad bring back some books from China, and this was among them. I like the characters themselves, even though the only really developed ones were our leads.
There’s nothing too special about the story itself––the “conventional Central Plains wulin hero falling in love with unconventional heroine from out of the mainstream of the martial community” has been done, and has been done better, most notably by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) in Legend of the Condor Heroes and in The Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre. And the writing was repetitive–there are only a certain number of times I can hear someone’s eyes described as “dark jade” and when I can hear someone’s face described as “fairylike,” but the voice was what really grabbed me. It was youthful without being juvenile, and it was straightforward and unreserved, which I enjoyed.
So yes. On a personal level, I really enjoyed the book.
And then. And then. Oh boy. We hit the 3/5th marker almost exactly and the the novel got fucked. Up. There is a six-year age difference between Huangfu Yun and Gongsun Yun, and this wasn’t a big deal initially because at the start of the novel, they’re twenty and twenty-six, respectively. It’s still a fairly big power difference in terms of their stages of development (I had a crush on a 24 year old when I was 19, and I freaked out, tbh) but it’s not something that would absolutely in every circumstance cause me to raise my eyebrow.
But they meet when she’s 14 and he’s 20, and he gets lost while trying to infiltrate her sect, and he sees her while she’s bathing. It’s not a spoiler, it’s literally in the prologue, and it also wasn’t that big a deal because he was at that time supposedly blinded by poisoned smoke at the time, so it’s all very fuzzy and I was willing to entertain that out of gratitude and, not knowing who she really was or anything about her, really, Gongsun Yun fell in love with her and remained in love with her for six years.
But then it turns out he was lying and he could see the entire time? So that he knew she was a child? Like a literal child? And he was twenty and he specifically mentions that she looked like a child, but that “she had the air of someone older.” And that’s so fucking gross? And pedophilic? And okay, Back in The Day(TM) girls of 14 did get married to boys of 20, this is not a shock, temporally speaking, but this is a novella for modern audiences which must keep in mind modern sensibilities and in any case this isn’t a strictly historical novel anyway, since there’s nothing specific that points to this being set in actual history instead of an alternate historical realm where temporality and statehood don’t actually matter as much as the ethos of wulin.
If it was just this one thorn, I might have swallowed it with a warning to everyone else, but then it followed this shortly thereafter with the protagonist drugging her love interest with the equivalent of a date-rape drug? The situation doesn’t exactly correspond, because it turns out that he didn’t actually swallow the drug, and she ended up taking another pill herself, but the initial premise is that she drugged him, and it was treated really lightly, almost humorously? Which I think is tacky and in poor taste, especially since earlier in the novella, she’s almost the victim of an assault and was drugged by a similar (though less potent) pill.
And then immediately thereafter she darkens her face with makeup (like…I will give credit to the author that the protagonist is described as having “honey coloured skin” instead of the platoon of unimaginative authors whose only descriptions of women seem to reach their limit at “jadelike skin” or “skin as white as snow” but it’s still ridiculous that this as a plot point is so normalised that it’s used as light humour). This exists in a context, by the way, wherein despite the fact that dark-skinned actors exist, Chinese television productions would still rather darken light-skinned actors faces with makeup rather than to hire a dark-skinned actor to play the famously dark-skinned Bao Qingtian. This exists in a context where there are no dark-skinned actresses who have achieved mainstream success, and where people still strive to be as light as possible.
It’s just. Ridiculous. And quite frankly, it ruined what would otherwise have been a really adorable and enjoyable story that I would have unreservedly recommended. Just one of these problems would have been bad enough, but it’s three major issues in a book that’s only around 200 pages long.
All I really have to say is this:
Oh, and also that I think Chen Xiao would be perfect for Gongsun Yun if only because he has the most perfect smile the play him with: