The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by ReneeG. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance category.

The summary:

There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power

A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.

Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.

In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life of death—and the woman who came to rule it all.

Here is ReneeG’s review:

The category is Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance, which I interpret as a meaty fictional story with a side of romance. This is the first book of a duology (Empress of the Bright Moon is the second volume) about Empress Wu, the first and only Empress of China who ruled in her own name. She is an exciting historical character and while the basics of her life are known, there is much room for a talented author to weave a story. This book covers the early years of the soon-to-be Empress Wu Zetian (called Mei in this book) from ages five to twenty-two, during the reign of the Emperor Taizong whom she served as a concubine.

The author, born and raised in China and now living in Texas, spent ten years researching the Tang dynasty and Empress Wu’s reign before writing this story. She read and translated archaic Chinese texts for her research and she particularly notes where she changes the wording of a quoted passage from a translated Sun Tzu’s Art of War. I started reading with very high expectations.

In the first chapter, the first 12 pages, we cover 13 years of Mei’s life, from her studies with her father (who taught her the classics of China, like the Art of War, taught only to boys) through his death and the exile of her family from their home to that of her despicable older brother, up to the point she enters the carriage which will take her to the palace as one of the fifteen “Select” noble maidens who went to the Emperor every year. The rest of the book covers how Mei managed to get herself out of the lower courtyards where the Select maidens languish in boredom (and work hard – they provided unpaid labor while they waited to see if one of their rank would make it to the Inner Court where the real action was), to her final landing spot as a Talent, a sixth-degree lady (concubine) who is in rotation to “see” the Emperor.

The plot sets up Mei’s rise to Empress by showing both the difficulties and the opportunities Mei finds to get the Emperor’s attention and hopefully his favor. Mei’s stated goal is to be noticed by the Emperor and become his favorite concubine so she can ask him to help her mother get back the family house. We are led to believe she can do this because of her upbringing. But Mei does some pretty stupid things, wasting chances to impress the Emperor and then getting caught with his son, Prince Zhi (aka Pheasant). The most captivating part of the book, for me, was the beginning, as Mei schemes her way into Palace and then devises a way to move into the Inner Court. The plot stutters after that, as Mei flitters like a butterfly between yearning for Pheasant and focusing on her duty to her family – I just did not feel the urgency of either option.

It was so difficult to stay invested in Mei’s story. She seemed more like a spoiled modern teenager rather than a young Tang woman living in a very constrained environment. We are told how smart Mei is and how she was raised to think strategically, but Mei does not demonstrate that skillset in her actions with the Emperor or the women of the Inner Court. She reacts instead of acts and allows her enemies to win the moment that should be hers. It is Mei’s allies among the women of the Inner Court who act and repeatedly save her.

Another issue was the lack of consequences for Mei’s failures, so I could not cheer her wins. We are told what will happen if an act takes place, such as Mei making a bet with the forfeit of losing her place among the Talents, but when the bet is lost nothing happens – Mei is still a Talent, is still part of the Inner Court, and gets still another shot at the Emperor. And don’t get me started on what should have happened when the Emperor discovered her affair with Pheasant – but the only punishment is that the Emperor ignores her when she serves him wine. Whoop-di-do.

Finally, the writing was sometimes uneven, veering from what I would call adult language choices to words and structure that you might find in a middle-grade book; unfortunately, I didn’t mark those sections where the language made my brain bounce so I can’t provide any examples. And most embarrassingly, I actually missed the consummation of Mei’s relationship with Pheasant, since I thought they were in a very heavy rainstorm. I know, I should have known what was happening since some of the old skool romances I read as a kid used the same imagery, but the mind is old and I didn’t connect the dots the first time.

I love ancient China and I was excited to read The Moon in the Palace with the Tang setting and the rise of a woman who would rule an empire; perhaps these high expectations were why I ended up feeling so growly about the book. Worse, I expected to be so drawn into Mei’s story that continuing her story was a no-brainer, but after slogging my way through those 381 pages I will not be reading book two of this duology. Life is short and other books are waiting.

This book is available from:
The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

March 1, 2016

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