In truth, we were similar. Like two sides of a fan, we were at odds with each other, we competed with each other, but our fates similarly rested in the hands of the Emperor–the holder, the commander, the manipulator of our destinies.
The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel is an #OwnVoices Chinese historical fiction novel that is the first in a duology chronicling the life of Empress Wu as she rose from a simple concubine to become one of the most powerful rulers in Chinese history. The story begins with a little girl named Mei who is picked to become a potential paramour for the Emperor. In the wake of her father’s demise, she is whisked away to the palace, never to see her family again. When a rare opportunity arises for her to capture the Emperor’s attention, she crafts a gift that he will never forget, setting into motion an array of events that shall ultimately steal Mei’s childhood innocence to morph her into a calculatingly intelligent and resourceful woman of the court.
This is a difficult book to review because there are so many captivating elements about it, yet it was also quite challenging for me to stay invested in Mei’s journey from beginning to end due to its extremely basic prose.
The best parts of The Moon in the Palace are with the moments of intrigue and suspense that comes with palace politics, particularly where oppressed female roles are involved. Mei learns that not everything is as she fantasised about when she was younger, and that the privilege of visiting with the Emperor is exactly that: an honour awarded to only a handful of women who have proven themselves to be memorable to him. Friendships are superficial and a means to climbing the ladder of prestige and any hint of compassions is usually tied to a thread of devastating deception. The author has a talent for building tension slowly that makes the reader want to root for Mei while protecting her from the doom that is inevitable.
I knew now: love and destiny were two wild horses that could not be curbed. They galloped in different directions and ran down different paths where streams of desire and hope would not converge. To follow one was to betray the other. To make one happy was to break the other’s heart. Yet I supposed that was part of life, a lesson we had to learn. To grow up was also to give up, and to build the future was to dissolve the past. The only thing we could do was hope for the best, to believe that the horse we chose would find us a safe destination.
Since there are so many levels to the depths that people go to for power and authority, the story becomes dark and tragic very quickly. It is also powerfully vicious and emotionally tight; all necessary ingredients for an extraordinary exposition on the internal workings of Chinese state-ship at the time. The only thing that really diminishes the quality of the narrative as a whole is the overly simplistic prose.
The tone did not fit the time period at all and came off as rather contemporary in nature. If I did not already have prior knowledge of the book’s particular era, I would be inclined to believe that this was a modern-day telling of Empress Wu’s beginnings, just without the use of technology. There was also a lack of emotion in many dialogue exchanges and interactions that Mei had with other women of the court. There were only two women who evoked any sort of emotional response or association while reading, and they were ones that had impactful roles as well, which greatly alleviated the monotonous feel of the people of the court.
Lastly, the story is incredibly drawn-out. I understand the need for meticulous use of details, and I often appreciate the tediousness that comes with the historical fiction genre. However, with The Moon in the Palace, it would have been better to use some well-placed time jumps to cover more of the lacking portions. The pacing does pick up significantly within the final one-third to one-fourth or the novel, and that was where I finally began to feel more invested with the plot and Mei’s journey. I merely wish the first 70% was not such a slog to get through. By the time I arrived at the climax, I had utterly disconnected with the all the characters and storyline.
Even so, I recommend this book to fans of Chinese historical fiction. Some readers may appreciate the graduality of the novel more than I did, and as I mentioned, there are some rather marvellous aspects to The Moon in the Palace that can be overlooked by the slower development. At the very least, the beginnings of Empress Wu’s life in this fictional telling is still quite provocative and culturally fascinating; definitely worth experiencing, especially if one is an enthusiast of cultural histories.