In writing this review, I realized how rare it is for me to delve into historical fiction. Of all the books that I’ve read, I could only pull out of my memory Shohei Ooka’s Fires on the Plain as being in the “historical fiction” genre. That story was set in a Philippine jungle during WWII—actual historical events. But that novel’s characters were fictional Japanese soldiers and Filipino guerillas. That’s as far as I’ve ever gone in the historical fiction genre. So until I’ve read Empress, I have never before encountered a novel that featured actual historical figures as its characters. As a work of fiction, the novel reimagines the life and reign of China’s only woman Emperor, Wu Zetian, who ruled in the middle of the Tang dynasty by founding her own Zhou dynasty. As advertised, it’s a biographical novel—if it weren’t fiction, Empress could just as well work as a biography of Empress Wu, bolstered by an abundance of detail describing the ceremonies, rituals, parades, clothing, architecture, and lifestyle of Tang dynasty China—that’s why the novel at times reads like a history book.
The writing is artful, exquisite poetic prose. Shan Sa originally wrote the novel in French and I found Adriana Hunter’s English translation was beautifully and colorfully executed. Thanks to the narrative voice employed by the author, I felt like I could have been reading an actual memoir written by Empress Wu herself. Shan Sa uses the Empress’s own perspective, which reaches into spiritual levels, as seen in the novel’s opening where she narrates her own birth. The reader is then taken on a fascinating journey through the ups and downs of the Empress’s life amidst the milieu of Imperial China. The novel shines as it reaches its apogee with Empress Wu’s founding of her own dynasty and maintains its luster through its depiction of the Empress’s late-life struggles: Becoming torn in choosing an heir to her throne, as well as coming to terms with her own mortality, told in the Empress’s voice mixed with the denial, pain, and melancholy of a once glorious ruler confronting the sunset of her reign.
Shan Sa has written a highly ambitious novel and I admire the depth of the research she must have done to pull this off. Infusing fiction into actual historical events, especially a history as rich as China’s, is a daunting task and Empressdefinitely didn’t disappoint.