Rating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Zhu Chongba has become Zhu Yuanzhang. Now possessing the mandate of heaven, she intends to not just win a war and claim a title. No, she intends to claim the world. Zhu Yuanzhang will become Emperor and remake the world in her own image. But Zhu isn’t the only one with the mandate of heaven. At the great Mongolian Palace, Wang Baoxiang — whose mandate is as black as Zhu’s is white — has his own dreams, not of ruling the world, but conquering it.

Zhu is a white light, as brilliant as the sun, but, like the sun, she is blind to her own shadow. Moving forward and never looking back, she takes no lessons from the past in her desire to shape the future. Oyuang, the eunuch general, wants only to finish his grand quest, to kill the man who murdered his father, so that he might rest. Having murdered Esen, he murdered the only person who ever accepted him, who ever loved him, and he stands now, half alive, in the pain of that betrayal. Madam Zhang is a courtesan who has worked her way up to become the wife to an emperor, hating him while loving his brother. Baoxiang did everything for Esen, including murdering him. He wanted his brother’s respect, his admiration, even just his acknowledgement, so much that he destroyed everything Esen loved. Including himself.

This is the second story in the Radiant Emperor series and I think this will end up being a very polarizing book. Some people will hate it because the characters are almost universally unlikable. The things they do are irredeemable, done for the wrong reasons. The tone of the story is bleak and the writing is so purple it verges into indigo. They will see the misogyny the characters hold for themselves — a woman dressed as a man, a eunuch, a female sex worker, an effeminate man — and be uncomfortable or uninterested in continuing. But, for me, these are all things that make the book worth reading.

Each character — Zhu, Oyuang, Baoxiang, Madam Zhang — is a tragic, broken person lashing out in pain, uncaring who they hit so long as they make someone else feel even a fraction of what they feel. The story isn’t about glory and conquest; it’s about the price of war, the price of betrayal, the price of failure, and the price of success. It’s about grief and pain, isolation, and the need for human contact, both fair and foul. This is a book about the selfishness of pain. The obsessive, narcissistic, loneliness of grief. Of hurting so badly you want nothing more than to hurt everyone around you. There’s a lyricism to it, a sweeping beauty to the self-destructive paths the characters fling themselves onto as if, by being in motion, they can outrun everything they are feeling. The writing is brutal, lushly written, and poetic. At times, it’s spare, at times overwritten.

We watch Zhu realize that the cost of her ambition is the lives of those she cares about, watch her humor and optimism wane and fade into something more brilliant, honed like the edge of a knife. We see Oyuang struggle with his need for his betrayal to mean something, for his pain to be something real and physical rather than just the aching emptiness inside of himself. And we watch Baoxiang destroy every part of himself to get revenge upon the memory of a brother or Madam Zhang disassociate from her own body in an effort to preserve her own identity. It is equal parts painful and beautiful. There are no easy answers, no fairy tale endings. It’s an exploration of pain, grief, and love.

The themes of gender and gender presentation, of being yourself even when society looks down on you, are well done (if not subtle.) Zhu several times puts aside her own clothes to wear the clothes of a woman — to be seen as a woman. It’s not that she’s ever denied her gender, but for Zhu, her clothes have never been how she identifies herself. Gender is more than a robe, a hairpin, or makeup, it’s the person who wears them. The story contrasts this with Baoxing, who with his exaggerated dainty manners, the way he walks, the hobbies he indulges in, emphasizes his effeminacy and, for all that he sleeps with a man, he isn’t gay. He is simply himself, rubbing it in everyone’s face how much he wants their scorn and contempt, because the hatred he feels for himself isn’t fairly earned. It’s one thing to hate himself, it’s another to have the validation of the world loathing you.

The characters are light and dark, female and male, warrior and scholar. The two of them are my favorite characters and I regret there won’t be a third book in the series. This book won’t be for everyone, but it was for me. I loved it. And yet, I will completely understand why it might not resonate with some people. If you do decide to give it a try, I hope you, too, take enjoyment from this story and these characters. For myself, this is a five-star read and one of my top three books of the year.