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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Shan Sa

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To purchase Empress

Title: Empress
Author: Shan Sa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 319 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Empress - US
Empress - UK
Empress - Canada
Impératrice - Canada
Impératrice - France
Kaiserin - Deutschland
  • French title: Impératrice
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing and colourful, but gets to be a bit much

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Empress is the womb-to-tomb story of a seventh century Chinese woman, Heavenlight, who becomes the most powerful woman in the land. Born into the Wu clan, her father is a noble of some importance in the kingdom -- but her fortunes rise and fall over the years. Early on she is already tested, as the family delegate observing the mourning for her grandmother in a monastery: just five years old, she loses her family and own name ("I was now known as Light of Emptiness") and the life of comfort she had know before.
       She returns to the family fold, but after the death of her father her mother and her are marginalized by the clan. Family squabbling and intrigue is all the rage in China, even -- or especially -- at the highest level, where the emperor constantly has to worry about his own family members turning against him, with everyone vying for power, and the exiling to distant corners of the kingdom of those deemed a threat a common practise. It's much the same on the lower levels of power, and Heavenlight's mother must accept what the more powerful clan members decide for her.
       Heavenlight's life changes when she is summoned to the imperial court. It's a great honour, but also far from paradise. Only a few are chosen to please the emperor, while the rest mostly while and waste away their time in a world of, at best, stiff ritual ("there was no spontaneity in the Forbidden City").
       Heavenlight's life continues to be turbulent, as she tries to make the best of the situation. A bit more adventurous than most (an outdoors-type, who doesn't shy away from the horses), she stands out -- and this also helps her make the friendship, at fourteen, of a prince, Little Phoenix (three years younger than her) and his sister, Little Bull. They become close friends, which eventually leads Heavenlight to greater things: though a peripheral royal, the way things turn out Little Phoenix winds up becoming emperor. Along the way and after, Heavenlight's good advice helps him get by and then consolidate power. And eventually it also leads to Heavenlight's installation as empress (though there's another lengthy monastery-stay in store for her before she takes those steps).
       Heavenlight's story is an often engaging one, covering much of noble life and politics of that time. Court life -- especially of the women -- is well-described, and Heavenlight is a vivid character. The main problem with the book is that so much happens. It covers a considerable span, and the constant shuffling of favour and power can be overwhelming. Because it covers so long a period, Heavenlight can only highlight certain periods and events, skimming over much else. The scenes -- including her affairs -- are often very captivating, but the constant flow of events as it is presented often gets to be too much.
       An appealing novel, with fascinating colour and detail, but not entirely satisfying.

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Empress: Reviews: Shan Sa: Other books by Shan Sa under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature under review
  • See Index of Chinese literature

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About the Author:

       Shan Sa was born in China in 1972 and moved to France in 1990. She writes in French.

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