Shan Sa, Empress

I started Empress a while ago and from the first it gripped me. It was not gripping in the style of a thriller (which I usually find too gripping) or a sensation novel or a fantasy novel. Rather, it was captivating in its descriptions, the imagery the novel presented and the flow of the language. The language was precisely what made the book so powerful.

The story itself is fairly simple; the novel presents a fictionalised biography of Empress Wu, China’s first and only ruling empress (as far as my information goes anyway). Even though rulers like the Empress Ci Xi, the last empress of China, were supreme rulers, it appears that only Empress Wu became Empress in her own right. The novel begins before the birth of the empress; the narrator’s story begins in the womb which is a powerful passage of writing. It chronicles the empress’s life as a child, her destitution after her father’s death and her entry into the Forbidden City as a potential concubine to the Emperor. But her life does not really begin until the emperor’s heir falls in love with her. After the emperor’s death this son eventually takes Wu as his concubine and later sets aside his first wife to marry her. Wu has become empress and from now on her life is one of intrigue, power play and poetry. After her husband’s death she becomes the Supreme Empress, officially ruling for her son but, after a short time, ruling in her own authority. Just before her death, as her mind loses its astonishing presence, the empress is forced to abdicate. The regression and the descent into hallucination is just as powerfully written as the first scene in the womb.

Sometimes the novel becomes convoluted with names, names which are often transcribed or transliterated from the Chinese. I often found it hard to keep Purity, Moon, Wisdom, this general, that general and the King of something apart. However, most of the time it does not matter that much because the centre of the narrative is the empress and her impressions paint a vivid picture of imperial China. I do not know if it’s a historically correct picture but it was definitely a fascinating read.


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