EMPRESS a novel
by Shan Sa
Paperback, 324 pages
Pub Jun 1, 2007, Harper Perennial
First pub 2003 (translator Adrianna Hunter)
GoodReads Summary:A ravishing historical novel of one of China's most controversial historical figures: its first and only female emperor, Empress Wu, who emerged in the Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age.
In seventh–century China, during the great Tang dynasty, a young girl from the humble Wu clan entered the imperial gynaecium, which housed ten thousand concubines. Inside the Forbidden City, she witnessed seductions, plots, murders, and brazen acts of treason. Propelled by a shrewd intelligence, an extraordinary persistence, and a friendship with the imperial heir, she rose through the ranks to become the first Empress of China. On the one hand, she was a political mastermind who quelled insurrections, eased famine, and opened wide the routes of international trade. On the other, she was a passionate patron of the arts who brought Chinese civilization to unsurpassed heights of knowledge, beauty, and sophistication.
And yet, from the moment of her death to the present day, her name has been sullied, her story distorted, and her memoirs obliterated by men taking vengeance on a woman who dared become Emperor. For the first time in thirteen centuries, Empress Wu flings open the gates of her Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale–revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.
Yesterday, I reviewed a book about this same woman, but it was a narrated history book. This book is a historical novel in which you hear the story through the main character's thoughts and words. There was no reference section at the back of this book as there was in Daughter of Heaven, but the author spent three years researching her subject. This included traveling to the area where this all happened. She is an artist and used her artistic talent of visualizing each setting like a painting to frame in each site and make it real in her mind since a lot of these locations are no longer available.
Ms. Sa starts the story from the womb, literally. Unusual, I thought, but really effective. Right from the start, you know this is a woman who must speak for herself, must be heard. She has a mind of her own. As the story goes on, it reveals a woman of passion. Not just sexual passion, but cultural, artistic, beauty and highly intelligent. As a child, her mother was so afraid of her intelligence and questioning ways that she had a wandering monk evaluate her and reassure her mother that there was no evil in the girl. A superstitious time. Still, when the opportunity came, Heavenlight was shipped off to a Buddhist monastery to be the mourning representative for the family. She was only five-years-old and felt abandoned by her family. She was there for several years until her father was made the Governor Delegate of the Province of Jing.
When she was 10-years old the Emperor died and her father died shortly afterward. The Great General Li was the Master of Ceremonies for her father's funeral services. He spent time speaking with Heavenlight and was so impressed with her he told her that he would be in charge of her destiny. After the funeral, Heavenlight, Little Sister, and her mother moved to the Wu village to live with her father's family. They were commoners. Heavenlight's mother was not a commoner and had raised her daughters as ladies. This caused all sorts of friction and outright conflict. Little Sister, in particular, was mistreated as she was the weakest and least able to protect herself from the abuse.
But the general had not forgotten Heavenlight and at the age of 13, Imperial troops came to escort her to the palace to serve in the Forbidden City. She was made a Talented One of the 5th rank, so she now outranked anyone in the Wu family. She made herself a promise to make them pay for all the abuse they had heaped on the three women during their stay there and to bring honor to her mother again. Promises she kept.
She became a part of the harem and learned many things. She was instructed in the arts of sexual health and love. She was a keen observer. She also learned singing, dancing, archery, horse training, and lesbianism. At least the horse training served her well. She became an excellent rider and horse handler. It was an incident with an unruly horse that brought her to the Emperor's attention finally. So she became the Emperor's concubine. She also fell in love with the heir, Little Phoenix, and was his lover. When the Emperor died, all his concubines were sent to a monastery for purification and rebirth, including Heavenlight. Little Phoenix tried to keep her with him as he ascended the throne, but she insisted on going to the monastery where she lived for three years. At the end of three years, Little Phoenix came to the monastery and requested to see her in private. He basically raped her. On the off chance that she was pregnant by him, she was recalled to the palace. She had a son by him, followed by a second son.
So here she is back in the palace and has a lover who is Emperor and an Empress who despises her and is the only thing standing between her and the power she needs to have things her way. Power. What do you think? I think you should get this book in one format or another and read it very soon!
This book was given to me by my daughter, Sarah, in exchange for an honest review. I am not being compensated in any way. All opinions are fully my own.
~ Judi E. Easley for Blue Cat Review