The Moon in the Palace: A Novel of Empress Wu
- By Weina Dai Randel
- Sourcebooks Landmark
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Deborah Cannon
- March 4, 2016
A concubine strives to reach the throne in ancient China
Palace concubine Mei is no ordinary girl. Daughter of a governor, she promises at her father’s death that she will fulfill a prophecy to “eclipse the light of the sun and shine brighter than the moon. She would reign over the kingdom that governs many men. She would mother the emperors of the land but also be emperor in her own name. She would dismantle the house of lies but build the temple of the divine. She would dissolve the kingdom of the ghosts but found a dynasty of souls. She would be immortal.”
To be immortal in ancient China meant only one thing: that she would become The One Above All and rule in her own right. For only gods and kings were immortal. But in Mei’s culture, a girl’s destiny was not the same as that of a boy. While boys could move upward by becoming civil servants and soldiers, such opportunities were not available to girls. A woman’s rise in wealth and status was at the mercy of men — especially the ruling monarch.
In The Moon in the Palace, part one of her Tang Dynasty historical duology, author Weina Dai Randel chronicles Mei’s early womanhood as one of the emperor’s concubines. It is a different interpretation from what is offered in the history books and a masterful tribute to the legendary Wu Zetian from whose life the story is derived.
Set during the Tang Dynasty, when China was thought to occupy the center of the civilized world, young Mei unintentionally starts a sexual revolution that will change the role of women — if only for a short time. Willful, yet necessarily cautious, she turns disaster into personal victory. From an outcast in the forgotten Yeting Court, she rises to become a palace lady of the Inner Court through treachery and bloodshed.
Yet even as she nears the heights of personal ambition, one thing plagues her mind: She promised to look after her family when her father died, and nothing she has managed to do has brought her any closer to this goal.
Her widowed mother is impoverished, her baby sister is ill, and her elder sister is forced into a loveless marriage. Mei does not want a fate like theirs. It is only by her success that she can save them. When true love comes her way, her heart pulls her to embrace it, but reason warns otherwise. She belongs to the emperor, and not to his son, who is eighth in the dynastic chain with no chance to become ruler.
This novel will be a hit with historical-fiction devotees. It is well researched, and the reader is blissfully transported into the world of the Tang Dynasty. Readers will fall in love with Mei, whose name means “Little Sister.”
If you know anything about the real Empress Wu Zetian — who ruled during the early Tang years in China as the country’s first and last female leader — it is at times difficult to see how the naïve, inexperienced Mei, who is both loving and charitable, becomes the ruthless and infamous sovereign.
On taking power after her husband’s death in 690, she overturned every convention of the Confucian patriarchy for her own purposes and eradicated most of the male Tang line to found her own matrilineal dynasty. She took male concubines, spent state funds on aphrodisiacs so powerful that, at the age of 70, rumors spread how she grew new teeth and eyebrows to attract lovers. Her most notorious act was to send her great-nephew as a hostage bridegroom to the neighboring warring Turks, rather than offering them the traditional princess.
The real triumph of The Moon in the Palace is how Randel succeeds in showing court politics exclusively through female eyes, and how every decision and subsequent action, success, and failure are skillfully plotted like a chess match by the palace women. These are unique characters with life-and-death ambitions, and each is motivated to strategize by any means available — trickery, betrayal, or friendship — to become that much nearer to the emperor and, ultimately, the next mistress of China. Magical.
Deborah Cannon is author of the historical fantasy epic The Pirate Empress, set in Ming Dynasty China. She also writes paranormal suspense novels, won an honorable mention for “Twilight Glyph,” a short story in the Canadian Tales of the Fantastic (Red Tuque Books 2013), and is a contributor to the popular franchise Chicken Soup for the Soul.