To be honest, I’m not completely sure what I think about this novel. I have a lot of conflicting ideas and thoughts and so it’s difficult to form a general consensus about it. But since writing always helps me organize my thoughts (well somewhat organize), I’m going to write about it and review it.
Published in 2006, Empress is a fictional biographical novel about the only ever woman Chinese emperor, Empress Wu, written by French-Chinese authoress Shan Sa. Empress Wu was a ruler who officially ruled as Emperor during the Tang Dynasty, or rather her self-created Zhou Dynasty. She was actually the reason I picked up this book — I had heard of her earlier and thought her achievements to be exemplary. However, despite my broad admiration for her, I hadn’t really studied her or her history in depth. I had heard of some of the slander against her but I always figured that the criticisms were false and bourn out of jealousy for such a powerful figure. The fact that she was a woman who managed to reach such heights during such a male dominated era and culture was phenomenal to me. I was curious to see how exactly she reached her position, and the book claimed to reveal just that. Written in first person perspective, the Empress is our lens. As this is a fictional account (because no first-person account of her reign from her perspective endures I believe), I knew some things would be fabricated. However, I also found myself quite taken aback and just how accurate this novel was as well in terms of events. That said, I’m certain that there were more than a few liberties taken as well.
Anyways, from a purely reviewer perspective, the book is quite engaging, especially story-wise. It purports to tell the story of Empress Wu and her rise to power and does so by detailing numerous situations and her decisions. For example, there’s quite a few passages where the reader is actually able to read the politics surrounding government and how Wu negotiates and manipulates other around her. And since the politics surrounding situations have actually been kept in annals, they are quite accurate. Empress Wu’s life is indeed fascinating. Writing-wise, the book is decent as well. I heard that this book was originally written in French and then translated to English. I could kinda see that and also not. Whoever translated it, did a really good job because the writing flowed beautifully in english. But there were definitely a few creative grammar liberties taken. I found a few techniques of hers to be quite beautiful and effective. But I also eventually grew tired of the amount of description in the book. It just felt like too much. Yet, at the same time, I also feel like I cannot really hold this against Ms. Sa because 7th Century China was indeed beautiful and only copious amounts of description could probably do it justice. Plus, at least initially, her descriptions contribute to the grandeur of Empress Wu’s surroundings and rise. So I’m mixed on that.
What I’m also mixed upon I suppose, is the character of Empress Wu herself. Or rather, her activities. I suppose I am quite naive because the lifestyle Empress Wu experiences is something I would not have expected or suspected. For example, the book makes mentions of threesomes, incest, and demons. I had expected murders, conspiracies, and political intrigue because that is what history has generally been comprised off, but not the above mentioned things. Which brought me to another query, just how accurate was this book? The problem I have such literature (this has happened before btw, I just never learn LOL), is that I get frustrated at how difficult it is to verify the accuracy of things. I end up enjoying or disliking real-life characters based upon fictional accounts, which themselves manipulate readers by refashioning events, and can never figure out if my feelings are based upon the right information or not. Part of me enjoys this exercise because it functions as a two-way mirror, especially if I have prior knowledge of events. For example, contemporary history says that Empress Wu poisoned her own child in an effort to pin the blame on her husband’s previous wife so she could get rid of them and usurp power. The book, on the other hand, implies that the daughter was poisoned by someone else and that the poisoning became the catalyst for her husband to give her more power. It’s really a matter of perspective. On the other hand, part of me also hates this exercise because its so inherently manipulative and its so difficult to ascertain if the reader’s interpretation of the characters can be considered historically accurate or not. But I also hesitate to completely dislike this book just because of how detailed it is in regards to Imperial China’s architects, fashion, and lifestyle. In conclusion, I have mixed feelings.
My rating: read it to learn more about Imperial China and Empress Wu, but keep an open mind about her character.