I expected The Devil’s Garden to be a pleasant diversion, a minor work of gender bending romance, framed by a slight adventure. The concept of a young street urchin disguised as a famous temple courtesan sounded intriguing, but I came into the book resigned to the erotic elements being primary in the past.
What a delightful surprise to find that I underestimated on all counts!
This is a book that was as exciting as it was romantic, and as thoughtful as it was erotic. Just as there are delightfully hidden layers to Ume and Cree, there is a wondrous depth to the story that’s quite surprising, considering its page count. Really, it’s a story told in three acts, with each adding not just their own content and development, but also adding significance to what came before.
The Maiden Ume Sky is an amazing character, a self-made woman who literally worked her way up from the streets to become a temple courtesan who is as admired as she is respected. It would have been far too easy to portray her as either innocent or wanton, leading to some kind of social redemption. Instead, Jane presents us with a complex woman who, as much as she values her role, isn’t sure she believes in the faith she serves. Instead of blind devotion, her allegiances are personal, ties of love and loyalty that must be earned, rather than expected.
Similarly, both Cree Sylva are the MeerAlya – the two primary objects of Ume’s affections – are more complex and intriguing than we first might expect. Without betraying Cree’s secret, he is a strong, admirable, respectable friend and lover who is immediately likeable and demanding of our trust. His role in the story is significant, and perhaps a bit convenient, but never comes across as clichéd or artificial. As for the Meer, we’re set up to expect either a god-like tyrant or an impotent puppet, but he’s wonderfully human, and entirely sympathetic. With a plot that could go two ways, either culminating in triumph or tragedy, it’s MeerAlya who makes the difficult choice.
Nothing is straightforward here, and appearances are (quite intentionally) deceiving. I knew where I wanted the story to go versus where I expected it to go, and I was delighted to find that Jane took it somewhere in between the two, validating the characters, but also surprising the reader.