March 2024
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Review: The Russian Concubine, Kate Furnivall

Sixteen-year-old Lydia and her gorgeous mother Valentina have been living in Junchow, China, ever since they were exiled from Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution.  All is not well for these two women; Valentina drinks too much and Lydia must steal just to pay the rent.  Her thievery places her in danger with a terrifying underground gang, from which a young Chinese Communist, Chang An Lo, saves her.  That doesn’t solve Lydia’s problems, however, and they only escalate as she realizes how deeply she feels for Chang An Lo and that her mother is falling into deeper and deeper disgrace.

There are a lot of things wrong with this novel.  The story has a great premise in theory and one which should really appeal to me.  I love the idea of a forbidden love.  Here, though, it doesn’t work.  For one thing, I didn’t believe in the connection between Lydia and Chang An Lo.  I don’t know if I can isolate why.  I just didn’t feel that they could have possibly known each other well enough to risk their lives in such a way.  In fact, I felt a little bit like Lydia was a spoiled brat, despite the fact that she’s poor and knows it.  She just must have her way all the time.  As an example, she asks her mother’s lover for a rabbit, even though her mother despises it and they can’t afford to eat in the first place let alone buy greens for a rabbit.  She insists on charging off into the dangerous section of town, only to get people killed and risk the life of a friend.  She makes bad decisions and manipulates adults to get what she wants.  She’s fiery, but fiery in a way that is not appealing.  The one aspect of Lydia’s character I did like was the relationship with Alfred, which I thought grew in an organic and believable way.

This book also has far too many characters.  It’s not just about Lydia and Chang An Lo.  It’s about Lydia’s mother and her various paramours and her friend Polly and Polly’s parents and her teacher Theo and his Chinese lover and a variety of thugs and aristocrats and communists besides.  It gets confusing and I wished it had been streamlined.  The book just felt too long, like the story went on and on.  And to top it all off, it’s open-ended, so the reader is forced to buy the sequel if she wants to continue the story.  I feel like a warning should come with books like this.

I did like the setting; historical fiction in China is harder to come by than, say, historical fiction in England, and I appreciated that.  There are little bits of history thrown in, like the origins of that rabbit’s name, Sun Yat-sen, and the history of the Communist movement in China.  These,  however, were not enough to rescue the plodding plot and unsympathetic characters.

Finally, a minor point, which someone who works in publishing could clarify for me.  Since Lydia and her mother are Russian, sometimes they use Russian phrases in their speech.  Unfortunately, these are spelled out somewhat phonetically, and almost always would probably give the reader the wrong pronunciation of the word.  Is there a reason that she couldn’t have just used the cyrillic, aside from the fact that most people can’t understand it?  If anything, it would look even more exotic.  It also felt very tacked on to me, as in, they’d say “Thank you” and then the author would add spasibo and it just threw me out of the book.  Though my Russian has greatly degraded, it was once fluent and sometimes it even took me a while to figure out what words she was trying to use.  Since the overall writing isn’t that good to start with, mundane and choppy, this was not an incentive to keep going.  I also hated how the book’s title didn’t match its content – there are no Russian concubines in this book.

Honestly, I don’t think I’d recommend The Russian Concubine.  I wouldn’t have finished if I didn’t have to.  You don’t need to start at all!


20 comments to Review: The Russian Concubine, Kate Furnivall

  • Bummer! I saw this book at Target a few years ago and loved the cover. I even thought the premise sounded terrific! Thanks for you honest review.

  • I was excited when I saw that you reviewed this book but then when I proceeded to reading the review my excitement vanished lol. I have had this book on my shelf since its publication (at least a couple of years now) and I wanted to read it but now I’m thinking maybe I’ll just give it away without wasting my time. The one thing that always, always ruins the book for me is when an author tries to use native language incompetently. Either know what you’re doing and doing right or just spare the readers your measly tries and write the whole book in English!

  • Sounds as if I can happily pass on this one!

  • Haha, is it weird that I’m happy to see a negative review from you? :P I actually had an ARC of this forever ago, and gave it away when I moved, never read. I just knew I wouldn’t like it! Although I think the friend I gave it to did like it…ah, well. To each his own.

  • I do love the cover, but thanks for the honest review. I’ll be passing on this one. I wonder if the title was just supposed to grab your attention, even if it has nothing to do with the actual story.

  • Meg

    Yikes! I totally agree that open-ended books should come with a warning. I like the satisfaction of finishing a novel and then moving on! Even if it’s part of a series, I think there should be a logical conclusion to the story arc… so that if I wanted to spend more time with these folks, I could, but I don’t feel like I have to keep going just to get some sort of closure. That really annoys me!

    Yep — think I’ll skip this one, too!

  • Like Julie I’ve been seeing this book around for awhile. I am drawn to the cover and title, but for some reason I’ve always held off. Well thank goodness! Now I can avoid it without worrying that I’m missing anything!

  • I read this book a while ago and couldn’t really remember it, except reading your review, it all came back. I remember feeling exactly what you describe. I came away feeling unsatisfied.

  • Bummer that you didn’t like it. I have it on my mental list, and I plan to read it eventually. It will be interesting to see if I feel the same way. My sister (who it not a super-avid reader) read it last year and loved it.


  • I’ll be skipping this one. I don’t like it when a book has so many characters that I have to take notes.

  • Wow! This one sounds really bad! I toyed with the idea of buying it when I saw it on the table of my local big box store, and now I’m glad I didn’t. Thanks for the revealing review. I am not going to even bother wasting my time on this one.

  • It is always interesting to me when someone I normally agree with has a different reading experience to me.

    I really enjoyed this book. I loved the unusual setting, the adventure and the possibility of reading more. There is no doubting there were some issues with the book but the overall story arc and the writing were strong enough for me to not worry too much about them.

    There is a follow up book which has been released recently. I presume you won’t be reading it, but I definitely will be!

  • I was underwhelmed with this one, too. Such a pity because I did enjoy the setting.

  • Ouch. thanks for the frank review. I’ll avoid this one!

  • Thank you for letting me take a book off my wish list.

  • Hmm…thanks for the honest review. I think I’ll pass on this one!

  • I love your honesty!

    I have this book on my shelf and haven’t read it yet.

    I actually read the second book (Under a Blood Red Sky) first and I really enjoyed it. I was worried it was going to have a bad ending but it didnt.

    I think I’ll still try this one because I did enjoy Kate’s second novel. I just might put it towards the end of my TBR pile.

    Marg – You’ll have to let me know what you think of book 2!

  • Aw, what a bummer! This sounds exactly like the sort of book I would enjoy, too–forbidden love and the historical Chinese setting setting would totally draw me in. But it sounds like the writing is crap! And one of my major pet peeves is when authors use phrases from another language that they obviously do not speak–I don’t know how you got through this book.

  • How disappointing! I assumed it was about a Russian concubine and was curious as to how nothing was said about one in your summary.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Interview With Susan Higginbotham, Author of HUGH AND BESS =-.

  • Why didn’t I read this review before buying this???? Regret, regret, regret!
    .-= Literate Housewife´s last blog ..#248 ~ Arcadia Falls =-.