After her wildly successful title The Luckiest Lady in London—named one of the Best Romances of 2013 on a number of prestigious lists—romance star Sherry Thomas takes a new direction with My Beautiful Enemy, which releases this August. For the first time, Thomas, who was born in China, integrates the rich tapestry of Chinese history and artistic expression into her romance story—to fascinating effect. She took time to talk to me in a phone interview about her background, her new book and the choices she made throughout this fictional journey.
“I refer to it as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Downton Abbey,” says Thomas about her new book, and it’s clear why. From the opening scene, the heroine, known as Catherine Blade in England and Ying-Ying in China, utilizes the mystical form of martial arts that the iconic Ang Lee film introduced to American audiences. Yet the emotional backdrop of the novel—an English engagement— is as decorously High Society as the martial arts scenes are high octane.
My Beautiful Enemy follows the star-crossed relationship of Catherine and Leighton Atwood. The story moves back and forth in time from 1883, when they meet in Chinese Turkestan—she is pretending to be a Kazakh wanderer and he a Persian trader; they fall in love, only to be torn apart by their true identities and the enemy masters they serve—to 1891 England, when, having spent years searching for one another in Asia, they’ve finally given up. Only then do they unexpectedly run into each other in London, once he is engaged and she is on a quest which will draw them both into danger.
It’s a highly romantic story (we’d expect nothing less from Thomas), but also active in a physical way we haven’t seen from Thomas’ romance novels before. “Yes,” she explains, “it’s a revision of a book I wrote years ago, before I got published actually, and I decided to rework it with a more intense romance. However, it was always intended to be an English version of a Chinese wuxia novel, with a heroic female spin.”
Wuxia, which translates as “martial hero,” is a longstanding popular Chinese literary genre that celebrates martial artists as chivalrous defenders of good over evil. While Ying-Ying’s heroics aren’t exactly tied to such universal concepts in the novel, her martial arts abilities certainly bring to mind the type of action Western audiences have become familiar with in Crouching Tiger and other successful wuxia films. It’s definitely a fun and beguiling angle to take in a romance novel, and in Thomas’ talented hands, the complex plot flows smoothly, navigating chronological bounces and emotional wrenches with clarity and authenticity while also exploring ideas of identity, loyalty and love.
Thomas originally planned the book as part of a series that spanned 20 years, involved three timelines and was almost completely from Ying-Ying’s point of view. “I had to change that to include more of Leighton’s perspective, to heighten the emotional tension of their estrangement and his engagement. You can actually read more of their backstory in The Hidden Blade, a digital prequel that will be coming out shortly before My Beautiful Enemy.”
Most Best-of-Romance lists will include at least one Sherry Thomas title, and Thomas has recently enjoyed success in the Young Adult fantasy market with her Elemental series as well. But My Beautiful Enemy is her first novel to include aspects of her Chinese heritage, and she is pleased with hows she's mixed American romance (albeit in an English setting) and Chinese wuxia. “I came to the U.S. when I was 13 and barely spoke any English. My mother was in graduate school at Louisiana State University and while I’d always been a voracious reader, up to that point everything was in Chinese. You could say I learned English by reading science fiction and romance novels, so I feel extremely fortunate to have created a successful career writing them. However, entwining elements of two genres that I’ve always loved that come from two disparate yet powerful literary traditions is especially gratifying, and this book was a joy to create.”
Thomas is busier than ever keeping up with her YA series and trying to appease her legions of romance fans. But after nine romance novels published to high acclaim in less than 10 years, she is enjoying the freedom of writing fantasy and trying something different by creating, in a sense, a new genre: the American wuxia romance. Any other upcoming surprises from this author who is clearly testing her writer’s wings? “I have a lot of ideas. I’ve been working on a contemporary romance which is very fun. I’m enjoying the process of sort of writing outside my own box.”
Bobbi Dumas is a freelance writer who specializes in books, with a particular interest in women's fiction and romance. Aside from her work for Kirkus, she is a contributing essayist and book reviewer for NPR. She also founded ReadARomanceMonth.com, a month-long celebration of the romance genre which takes place in August. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.