I knew I wanted to blog about Weina Dai Randel’s duology about Empress Wu, but I faced a tough decision in choosing whether to do it as part of my 2016 Reading Challenge series or for my Book Addiction series. I chose 2016 Reading Challenge in the end, because it fits under the category of a book that takes place in a culture I’m unfamiliar with, but I loved these books enough that they also could have been excellent Book Addiction candidates. As you know, Book Addiction features are books that I couldn’t put down and want everyone to read, and that goes for this duology too!
I read The Moon in the Palace, the fascinating and richly-drawn tale of the early years of Empress Wu, the first and only female ruler of China, back in March, shortly after it came out in March. The sequel came out in April and I’ve finished it now, too, and it was wonderful not to have to wait a year for it – I kind of wish all sequels were published so close together. The sequel, The Empress of Bright Moon, picks up right where The Moon in the Palace left off – and thank goodness, because the emotions and stakes are very high and I was desperate to know what happened next!
Both books are beautifully written, and I found myself happily lost in the high-walled palace and fragrant gardens, staying up far too late reading, following Mei (as she is called before becoming Empress) through the intrigues and dangers of life in the palace, gripping the pages tightly when she was in danger. Needless to say, it was a literary adventure I enjoyed them immensely.
I’m not as familiar with ancient Chinese history as I am with European history, and I was left feeling inspired to learn more. Reading about the luxurious but complex palace life was fascinating. Many girls, including Mei, moved to the palace at a fairly young age to become concubines, seeking the prestige of serving the Emperor within the highly structured hierarchy of the palace. Aside from his wife, the Empress, the Emperor traditionally chose four chief ladies, bestowing upon them the titles of The Noble Lady, Lady Virtue, Lady Obedience, and the Pure Lady. Below them, the other concubines had various levels of favour, and the power that accompanied it.
Mei lives in the palace as one of the lower-ranking ladies for Emperor Taizong. Throughout The Moon in the Palace, she gains a powerful reputation for her curiosity and intelligence, and she also becomes close with the Emperor’s son, Pheasant. I cheered as the two fall in love – it’s a sweet romance. However, even Mei’s formidable wits aren’t enough to protect her from the danger of divided loyalties and the consequences of the Emperor’s death. She’s separated from Pheasant in The Empress of Bright Moon, but her resourcefulness eventually brings her back to his side, and he grants a new, special title on her: Luminous Lady. Unfortunately, his wife, Empress Wang, bitterly resents Mei and becomes a powerful, ruthless enemy.
I won’t give the entire plot away, although I could talk about the books for hours, but suffice it to say there is never a dull moment in this duology. The intricacies of court life and the struggle for political leadership leave plenty of opportunity for schemes and betrayal, as well as rebellion and bloodshed.
One of the things that really stood out to me in both books was the deep connection to family. All of the characters take their family loyalty and obligations very seriously, and Mei’s actions and feelings were often motivated by her bond with her family. This added a nuanced depth to the characterization that I believe adds to the reader’s connection with the characters, but it turns out it’s also a cultural aspect. In an article (which you should read, it’s very good), the author says that she believes “a traditional Chinese character without a sense of filial piety is not truly Chinese.”
Other traditions woven into the Mei’s story also highlighted the culture for me, including the celebration of the death anniversary of the late Emperor Taizong, which was attended by hundreds of officials and included a days-long feast. In The Moon in the Palace, Mei’s situation of moving to the palace, along with other young girls, to serve the Emperor as concubines also brings to life that ancient Chinese cultural tradition. I could feel her eagerness to rise through the ranks in the palace, to support her family through it.
The palace itself is vividly created, with high walls and many beautiful gardens. I found the scenes involving the silk worms especially fascinating. Partly because the production of silk was an important part of the culture – incidentally, overseeing the silk production was a prestigious task assigned to one of the Ladies – but also because the heated building housing silkworms is a such a unique setting for scenes in a book.
Not only did I get a tantalizing glimpse into a different culture and a diverse historical setting, I got swept into Mei’s story and into the beautiful writing. I can’t recommend The Moon in the Palace or The Empress of Bright Moon enough, and hope you will check them out, too! It makes me happy when a Reading Challenge post is a book I really liked and enjoyed reading. They haven’t all been that way (looking at you, Hamlet).
Next up in the Reading Challenge will probably be a book I haven’t read since high school, but I haven’t figured out which one yet. Honestly, I’m having a hard time remembering what I read in high school except Shakespeare and Lord of the Flies.
2016 Reading Challenge List:
- A National Book Award winner– complete, Fifteen Dogs
- One of Shakespeare’s plays– complete, Hamlet
- A mystery – complete, And Then There Were None
- A graphic novel – complete, Bayou
- Book in a genre you usually avoid – complete, The Wild Seasons series
- Book about or set within a culture you’re unfamiliar with – complete, The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon (duology)
- Book you haven’t read since high school
- Non-fiction about a subject you’ve been curious about
- A book translated to your native language
- A book that’s at least 100 years older than you
- A classic novel
- At least three poems