Bryn Hammond's Reviews > Empress

Empress by Shan Sa
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's review
Jul 22, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: imagined-fiction

The ‘great man theory’ of history is out of fashion, and I don’t know how often historical fiction, either, sets out to portray greatness – whatever that is – in the political sphere. In this book I found myself convinced I was in the presence of greatness, a person I want to call great, and to add to that uncommon experience, she’s a woman.

If any of that sounds easy, I don’t think it is. At a point in this book it dawned upon me that in historical fiction, I haven’t met a great woman before – at least in the world of political leadership and statecraft. That may be down to the hf I read, or not. I avoid hf with titles like Empress, Princess, Queen, Consort or Concubine, because I can’t live in the women’s quarters for fun: therefore I don’t know what’s inside those novels, but I do know that this novel – which I nearly didn’t read on title – bulldozed those prejudices of mine, in seconds flat. In here I found quite an awesome human being. And I thought, it isn’t only that the historical subjects are rare (great stateswomen), but in order to create them on the page, you must have to rigorously do your thinking behind your writing. I sensed a rigour of thought behind the presentation of this woman.

From early on Heavenlight (Wu Zetian) gives the impression that her abilities swamp those around her, and moreover, she has a confidence in this. When, later in life, she finds herself more effective in worldly affairs than her emperor husband, she steps up to the job without… cognitive dissonance. She’s never been a hanger-on of others (who happen to be men). This mentality must have been necessary for a woman who makes herself Emperor of China.

As I understand, Wu Zetian was hopelessly traduced and trashed in the historical sources, so that we can’t expect to recover the ‘truth’ about her. What Shan Sa has chosen to do is salvage her with possible interpretations – possible, and positive. The resultant portrait may or may not resemble the historical person, but again I’ll say, is possible, and even just for that is a useful exercise. For myself, in future, I’m going to have a hard time picturing Wu Zetian any other way than the Heavenlight of this novel.

On style. This is told in intense first person; it’s about her and from her; her feelings for others are conveyed, but not so much the others’ existence in themselves. No doubt our subjectivities are as self-centred as this – it isn’t that she struck me as a selfish person. There is a brevity (one large life in 300 pages): in the middle parts I felt this a skimming-over, but in the late parts this brevity worked as an extraction of the essential or the right lines (the author’s a painter). Maybe that was me, getting used to the style. It had enough exclamation marks to play toy soldiers with... I don’t like to complain of such trivialities in translations from the French, but they got hard to ignore. At times I was plunged into the emotional life of this novel; at other times it failed to engage me. Again, I don’t whether that’s me, and I’ll see what happens next time I read this.

I mentioned that I can’t stand to live in the women’s quarters: here the Inner Palace is a prison and an insane asylum, and that meant I was fine. These women are overwrought, but they are seen to be made insane. It’s fair enough.

I’d note the parallels of youth and age in her sex life. As a young girl she suffers an obsession for one of the emperor’s older wives; when she herself is fifty she is once again infatuated with a fourteen-year-old girl. For years she serves as emperor’s wife; in her widowhood she acquires a young man, and he is kept, for her uses, in such a turned-upside-down way, equivalent to how the emperor treated his concubines… that I think Shan Sa is interested in exploring these matters.

I’m a fan of the use of translated names. Zetian is Heavenlight, and so we notice the light themes that coalesce about her. Children of hers are named Splendor, Future, Miracle. Lucky they are, because she can have little to do with her children, and these names were far more memorable for me than, in my ignorance, the Chinese. It exploits the ironies: Wisdom? uh-uh. Intelligence? a distinct lack of. It adds to the atmosphere and the intelligibility of the world, it tells us about their values. The city Chang’an is Long Peace. Our experience is more real when we know what the names mean, as, obviously, the novel’s inhabitants know.
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Reading Progress

July 22, 2014 – Started Reading
July 22, 2014 – Shelved
July 22, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
July 22, 2014 –
page 30
8.93% "'There was a dilapidated pavilion called Regret in the cemetery.'"
July 22, 2014 –
page 102
30.36% "Told in intense first person, for which that cover is perfectly chosen.\n Until about page 70 I was going to update, "I am drunk on this book." Been at least a year since I was so plunged in a book. \n The last thirty by a different author? Come back book."
July 23, 2014 –
page 207
61.61% "'I wanted politics to be a celebration of life from now on. I published an edict renaming the Great Chancellery the Terrace of Divine Birds; the Great Secretariat became the Pavilion of the Phoenix; and the Ministry of Supreme Affairs became the Lodge of Prosperous Letters... The era of Lowered Arms and Joined Hands announced my resolve to govern the world without recourse to violence but in a posture of prayer.'"
July 24, 2014 –
page 266
79.17% "I haven't before read a novel about a historical woman who is convincingly great."
July 24, 2014 – Shelved as: imagined-fiction
July 24, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Beautiful review, Bryn. I love it when my prejudices get bulldozed like that. I'll never forget, Bryn. :)

message 2: by Bryn (last edited Jul 27, 2014 11:32PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bryn Hammond Thank you so much, Derek. Smiling at ya. :)) I won't either.

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