Empress Wu tells the reader about her childhood in one of China’s impoverished but still noble clans, growing up a concubine of the emperor, and finally of becoming empress herself. This is the story of a bird locked in a golden cage, of lavish surroundings that fail to mask captivity, of the boredom and murderous competition of a small city of women all fighting to win the gaze of a single man.
The novel’s protagonist, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight), is a fairly complex character who is not always particularly likeable. She is in survival mode; even when she rules as empress, she must contend with assassination attempts and the ever present threat of failing health. This is a novel about a woman whose entire being is tied to the approval of men, and the suddenness with which fortunes can change through factors entirely out of her control.
Sa did an excellent job of painting the picture of a world that is at once rich and beautiful, yet brutal and cruel. I found it to be an interesting and well-written novel. It’s an easy read, although not always a pleasant one. This is a great novel to read if you happen to come across it, though I wouldn’t bother going too far out of your way to get it.
This book is part of Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series. I picked this book up at a second-hand sale my University was hosting. Having never heard of the author or the series, I was sold entirely by the cover art (which is absolutely beautiful and quite possibly the best part of the book – maybe I can just frame it?).
Overall, I found it to be an interesting read. The concepts of being forced to grow up and being responsible for many people despite having no experience kept me turning the pages. Unfortunately, they weren’t really fleshed out. I also noticed a few continuity errors – for example, Redbird’s father decides that she will act as the translator when they talk to the Chinese, but then he goes to the Chinese without taking her along. This seems to happen for no reason other than to be able to kill off the father without having to hurt Redbird (or have her experience battle before the climax).
There were also some descriptions that may have been anachronistic, such as referring to the army as a “machine.” I’m sure they had machines of some sort or another back then, but would she have seen them? More importantly, would she have had enough exposure to machines to think of such a description? It’s a small detail, one that I might easily have passed over without noticing. It’s just that the book is so full with these little things that it bogs the story down.
Finally, I just felt that the author wasn’t very good at writing in the diary style. We’re never told why she starts writing the diary (something that modern little girls living in an age where paper and ink are both cheap and plentiful might not need a reason for). And then there’s the way she describes things… The narrative just feels very objective and detail-oriented, while perhaps missing some of the details that would have been important to her. It didn’t feel like a diary, but rather a third person narrative crammed into a first person diary format.
All that being said, I still finished it and I did still enjoy reading it. I just feel disappointed because the story deserved a much better treatment than it received.