Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Recommend: Empress

I read this novel, Empress by Shan Sa, a few years ago, but it still really sticks out in my mind. Set in China, it was one of my first glimpses into the country's mysterious history. I was captivated by 7th century China, with all the intrigue, secrecy & power it takes to raise & command an empire.

Shan Sa tells the story of Empress Wu, the first & only female Emperor of China, who ushered in a golden age during the Tang dynasty. Empress Wu is born the daughter of a merchant friend of the first Emperor of the Tang dynasty & becomes his concubine upon her father's death. From the gynaeceum, the palace where all the royal women (hundreds of concubines & dozens of wives) & children are kept, she begins her struggle for survival & glory. Jealous women, weak men & treachery abound; it is impossible to know who to trust. Empress Wu must be strong, cunning & heartless to gain & maintain her reign, though she comes across as anything but cold. Indeed, I was rooting for her straight to the end, hoping that all her plans would come to fruition.

Shan Sa really brings the Empress & the Tang dynasty to life. Her descriptions of the city & royal pageantry are poetic & eloquent. It truly feels as though Empress Wu is telling her own story. We follow her, quite literally, from womb to tomb, a unique view of someone's complete existence. The story starts & ends with disappointment: she is born female & not male; upon her death, her hard work to raise an empire quickly crumbles. But the tale is far from disappointing; it is one of strength, passion & courage. It will definitely keep you engaged to the very end, where you'll be left wanting more.

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