This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge, S is for Shan. (and Sa.)
In the seventh century, Chinese emperors were building towering pagodas, designing meritocratic administrative systems, and consolidating an empire of about 50 million people, among many other advances. One of the emperors responsible for that flourishing progress was a woman - China's first and only empress to rule in her own right. History has been unkind to Empress Wu, condemning her as a conniving child-murderer and tyrant, even while admitting her accomplishments. In Shan Sa's Empress, Heavenlight, as we come to know her, has a chance to tell her own story.
Heavenlight is born to a commoner father who, through his service to the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, gained noble status and a noble wife. He is a good man, but when he dies from shock at learning of his Emperor's death, he leaves his wife and three daughters to the unkind mercies of his merchant family. Twelve-year-old Heavenlight achieves escape by impressing a general with her quick with and unique charm, as he arrangers for her to earn a place in the royal household.
Heavenlight finds herself among ten thousand "beauties" vying for the attention and the bed of the new emperor. Her path from there to Empress, ruling in her own right, is astonishing and engaging. She falls in love with both men and women, she contends with plots swirling around her, and she tries to stay true to her convictions and her country.
This book is translated from the Chinese, and as it is from a culture I don't know, a language I don't speak, and a period in history I am completely unfamiliar with, it is a little difficult to judge. The narrative does not unfold seamlessly, but that could be a cultural difference. Sometimes I had trouble differentiating between Heavenlight's desires or dreams, and what actually happened to her, but that could be a translation error. In sum, this was a fascinating book that exposed me to a rich culture and history that I knew nothing about, even if it was not always a compelling read. I would recommend it, though, as Heavenlight is an unforgettable character and her world is mesmerizing.