What a 180 degree turn around from book one. This story had it all - not quite enemies, not quite friends character device, great use of flashbacks to tell the back story (like peeling back an onion), political intrigue, the possibility of civil war, and a thirty year old virgin former concubine (it actually makes sense in the book).
Readers first meet Lady Ling Suyin and Governor Li Tao in book one, but they weren't much of a factor in that story, so it is okay if you skip book one and go on to this book. Both were no names, living in Luoyang, surviving the best they could until they each had a mentor to teach them how to be more. Fast track 15 years, and both are in the August Emperor's inner circle. After A.E.'s death, they go to far out reaches of the Empire to escape the political machinations of the imperial court and to hide from enemies. A note sent to Tao to rescue Ling from certain death at the hands of one of their mutal enemies prompts Tao and Ling to get re-acquainted. As it is a romance, they fall in love, they face their enemies head on, and everything works out in the end.
This story does both the sexy times and the emotional intimacy times so well you can't help but root for Ling and Tao. There were action sequences and dicey diplomatic negotiations that showed the strengths of Ling and Tao. Probably my favorite couple and story from the series so far. Although Tao is dealing with the political fall out from Butterfly Swords, I was happy not to have read a single thing about the heroine/hero from book one. So book one can totally be skipped and you wouldn't be lost reading book two. Ru Shan's downfall happens in this book and he is as much of a dumbass here as he is in book three (he is the brother of the heroine in My Fair Concubine).