A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life of death—and the woman who came to rule it all. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
My Review: Whenever I read anything about Chinese history, I’m always shocked at how violent it is. This is not necessarily just related to Chinese history, as there are definitely many cultures in the world who have utilized violence in many forms for cultural advances. Reading this book, however, really brought to light what a harsh life the ancient world was. If you were not born into privilege—and even then sometimes that was perilous—you were basically doomed to a life of struggle, strife, and often violence. I think one good example of violence in this book can be that the servants in the courts are eunuchs. Eunuchs have become, quite obviously, eunuchs because of an initial violent act. They were made eunuchs so that they could not threaten the current dynasty by fathering children of their own. It was a sure guarantee that they wouldn’t be presenting their own progeny to take over the dynasty. Another example from this book is the practice of not only killing an individual to prevent them from taking over the throne, but also killing their entire family and progeny so that no one can ever come back and claim that they have a right to the throne, essentially wiping out an entire line of people. And I can’t write about protecting your own line in this book without mentioning the killing of your own siblings or children in order to direct the line of dynastic inheritance. It’s all pretty harsh, really. We may think we live in a cutthroat political world (which we do, no doubt) but it’s hard to compare to the bloodshed and violence of ancient China.
The main character in this book is fascinating. On the one hand, as a reader, you feel bad for her because she’s really been put in a bad spot and that’s hard. However, she’s cunning and there’s no doubt that there is also a trail of heartache and sadness (and much more) that she herself has created. It’s a cutthroat world, no doubt, and she is just playing the game to the best of her ability. Compared to some of the other characters, she is definitely virtuous, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a fair share of blood on her hands by the time the book is over. Such is life in the palace, however. If you don’t look out for yourself then not only will no one else look out for you, but others will certainly be plotting your downfall and demise.
My only complaint about this book is that the writing is kind of clunky. I’m not sure if this is because of a non-native English speaker (the author is Chinese, but she is well-educated and I’m not sure of her native language) or if it’s just because she hasn’t hit her writing groove yet. There’s also the possibility that it is written in order to have the same cadence of Chinese. I’ve read other books by Asian authors and have encountered the same style of writing, so I’m not sure what the exact purpose was. The writing doesn’t take away from the story, however. It’s just not the beautiful and lyrical prose that I think would have elevated this novel even more. I’m hoping that in the sequel (which I am looking forward to reading!) she will have hit her stride and overcome some of the clunkiness.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars
For the sensitive reader: This book has some violence and sexual discussion, but it is not extreme and fits in with other historical novels.