I consider myself to be a discerning consumer. I’m not highbrow, but I like shows that treat me like an intelligent person, like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, not things like dumb sitcoms or cheesy soaps.
Or so I think. I recently realized when it comes down to it, every show is basically a soap opera. Sure, House of Cards might be a “political thriller” but it’s basically a soap. Game of Thrones? Same thing. So I guess what I actually like is strong, well developed characters, in a rich and detailed world going through a lot of crazy shit. (Think about it people, that’s exactly what every good show boils down to.) Now, enter my book review….
Based on the true story of Empress Wu (the only female empress in China history) the first book, called The Moon in the Palace, written by Weina Dai Rendal, is a richly researched, thrilling story set in ancient China. Just my cuppa. The main story starts with Mei’s youth (Empress Wu’s younger name) to her entry into the palace. The second book Empress of Bright Moon, covers the rest if her story with the rise and fall of a woman in the palace, and all the crazy shit drama that goes with a woman in power in ancient China.
As it’s a story about a woman, everything is from the woman’s point of view, and the female experiences. (A point-of-view you don’t get a lot, but I like.) Yes, there are bigger picture things going on with China and the world, but for Mei her whole world is the palace, first the outer area where the concubines wait to be chosen, and then the inner area where they are there to serve the emperor. Both are confining, small worlds (they aren’t allowed out and can’t walk around freely) but there are enough dramas and battles to be waged indoors.
And for women, the battles are with lies, wit, actions and getting the more powerful man to protect you publicly. Man, it must have sucked to be a woman back then. Although men weren’t spared their own political drama’s. Without giving too much away, Mei’s lover becomes emperor but quickly finds himself usurped by his uncle with no real political, or personal, power. Man, it must have sucked to be a man back then.
Another thing I really liked was the detail. You can tell Weina spent a lot of time researching this period. (In this interview at the Speaking of China blog she told Jocelyn it was ultimately 10 years of research.) But just like a pro athlete making a sport look easy you don’t think too much about what must have gone on to get these seemingly easy results. Weina doesn’t bog the story down with unnecessary descriptions. She tells just enough to make sure you have a crystal clear mental image, but aren’t distracted from the story at all. As a writer myself I know how hard that is to do. (And I’m a bit jealous of the apparent ease in which Weina, a non-native speaker, pulls it off!)
As with all historical novels based on real people, you know the end of the story. She was empress (and a good one), so you never actually fear for her life. But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t exciting. I read the two books in just a few days because it’s an interesting story, in a classy soap opera way: lies, betrayals, deaths, secrets, love affairs. All the good drama.
I know summer is coming and I could see this as a perfect summer book. The kind that makes you skip going in the water with your kids because you wanna find out what happens next.