Review #31: The Concubine’s Gift by K. Ford K

I was really looking forward to reading this book. The plot summary seemed light and fun, and I was hoping to have a easy, breezy read that would make me laugh. I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book, but alas, I really disliked it.

Bernice is from a small Nevada town, where she and her husband own the local inn. She is a preacher’s daughter, and as such grew up sexually inhibited despite her secret interests in erotic antiques. She loves her husband and children, but is overall a bit bored with her life. She purchases an antique makeup case that was once owned by one of China’s most infamous concubines, Blissful Night. In the case she finds a container of face powder. She begins to wear the powder which makes her skin look flawless, along with a bizarre side effect of giving her powerful sexual visions of the people she comes in contact with. Most of the visions are of the future and what the people in them need to do to be “happy.” Bernice finds that the visions won’t go away until she tells the people in them what she has seen. Soon she’s blurting out what she has seen to her friends, inn guests, and random townsfolk. The plot summary at Goodreads described it as “sexual advice,” but really she’s just saying exactly what she’s seen in the visions. The side plot revolves around the town’s brothel (this is Nevada afterall), and the sexually repressed townspeople’s fight to get it shut down.

Here are some of my problems with this book:
1. Character development. Essentially there was none. Bernice is completely one-note and confusing as a main character. She’s pretty boring, and the little stories we get of her childhood do nothing to deepen her or make her interesting. She also kind of an idiot, as she believes the makeup box (rather than the powder) is giving her the visions. She blurts out these visions to people in the beginning, and is embarrassed by this, but later in the book with NO transition or thought process, she is suddenly deliberately telling people in the most nonchalant fashion. She even considers leaving her husband because she saw a vision of herself and the town reverend having a great sexual romp. The notion of equating good sex with eternal happiness is present throughout the book and I am not entirely sure what I think of that message. When she tells people her visions they immediately drop what they’re doing and run off to pursue what the vision showed. For example, she saw a vision of one of the town prostitutes having a love affair with a man in Italy. She tells her this and the prostitute immediately quits everything, flies to Europe, finds the man, and calls her the next day to tell her they’re madly in love and so happy.

Mrs. Wright watched Polly out of the corner of her eye, “What do you think the vision means?” she asked her. “I need to retire,” Polly said resolutely.

This happens CONSTANTLY. Perhaps the magic takes over the people she tells as well, but if so, you’d think this would be laid out.No one questions her or thinks this is odd and there is no discussion of whether she should in fact tell people what she sees, or of the consequences of doing so. Her mom gets a bit mad with her and the town gossip gets her kicked out of the church congregation, but there is little in terms of Bernice’s reaction or processing of any of this. It’s all so simplistic it’s a bit much to handle.

2. The sex scenes. I am by NO means a prude, and I love a book with a good sex scene, but these sexual visions were just bizarre. Lots of them have violence or humiliation as core to what makes people happy, as well as fetish stuff such as dressing up in Halloween costumes, and foot play (seriously, toes are involved in at least three of the visions). I get that the town is supposed to be filled with sexually repressed people, but I don’t see why every single one of them apparently needs kinky sex to be fulfilled. One of them also details Bernice’s vision of her daughter losing her virginity which I am not entirely sure why that was included. Overall, the visions don’t seem to contribute anything to the story overall, except to shock the reader. They are graphic but not erotic.

3. The writing. I could overlook one-dimensional characters, lack of development and motivation, and bizarre sex scenes IF the writing style was excellent and effective. Alas, it too is so simplistic, and at times even inconsistent, that I just could not enjoy the fantastical nature of the plot.

Without clothes she looked like a pitiful orphan but her thinness only made her breasts look larger and Rusty couldn’t take his eye off of them.

He was already drinking tea and listening to Mrs. Lin explain the complex signs and secret words that medieval gays used for communication…

The dialogues is also cringe-worthy, and really in no way how people actually speak. I often found myself laughing, not because it was funny, but because it was SO bad.

“I imagine that he looks ill because his passions keep him from sleeping. In bed that man would surprise me by gripping me like a vice and he would persevere even though the fierce impact of his body with mine would threaten to break his bones. It is the intensity of his passions that give him strength.”

What I DID like in this book was the tale of Blissful Night’s life that is interspersed throughout the story. She is the only interesting character in the whole book, and I was constantly interested to learn more about her and her life.

The reviews over at Goodreads seem to be mostly positive (52% gave it 4 out of 5 stars), so it seems I am the exception in really disliking this book. I was not amused, entertained, or excited while reading it. I did not laugh out of humour, or feel connected to the characters. I was not turned on by the sex scenes. I did not have fun reading this. It’s sad really because the plot had lots of potential and could have been a fun romp. Instead it was awkward and badly written, as well as repetitive and a bit boring. I got this book through the e-book promotion at CBR4 and am very interested to read everyone else’s reviews! I wish I could have enjoyed this more, but alas, it was not to be this time around.