Good historical fiction will remind book groups that there is more in history to amaze, shock, and stun than in George R. R. Martin’s historically-inspired fantasy. When it comes to court intrigue, jealousy, revenge, and long-game power plays, history’s annals are full of horror, heartbreak, bloodshed, subterfuge, and tyranny of epic scope. Weina Dai Randel’s duology masterfully bring a neglected chapter and figure in China’s history to life with passion and detail that will make fans of historical fiction swoon.
Set in ancient China’s Tang Dynasty, both the first book, The Moon in the Palace (2016), and its sequel, The Empress of Bright Moon (2016), tell the story of a young girl, Wu Mei, who finds her fate thrown to the winds after the death of her father. Mei hopes the Emperor will choose her for his court—and he does—but nothing is swift or easy in Mei’s life, even when the winds start to blow her way. While at court, she finds that the way to power and influence is not simple and that her patience and fortitude will be tested often. Buoyed by the lessons she learned from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Mei keeps the long view in mind as she eyes her future, but the political machinations of the court and back-stabbing women in the way thwart her. But she finds love and support in unexpected places.
The women are beautifully drawn and are based on the real women of the court. Empress Wang is a villain of the first order, but Randel also tries to depict the humanity in her insanity and the forces that created her desperation. Mei must navigate a system in which women continually curry favor and must overthrow their peers to attain stature and security. She needs to choose those she can trust and keep close very carefully. It is clear that for both the women and the men of the court, power is bought with a knife’s edge.
Even though you know throughout these books that Mei will become Empress Wu, the only female empress in Chinese history, Randel keeps the tension ripcord-tight throughout the narrative. And Empress Wu’s path to power was rife with controversy and uncertainty. Hairpin turns abound, making this duology compulsive reading. Though most book groups are likely to select only the first title, once they start, they may be tempted to clear next month’s schedule for the second book. Readers who like political intrigue, court drama, and a strong female character in their historical fiction (or even fantasy) will devour these in short order.