The Moon in the Palace
This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Turophile. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance category.
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 Turophile's review:
Our heroine Mei is summoned to the Emperor’s palace after her father’s untimely death. There she quickly discovers the social stratification among the emperor’s many concubines. She also learns the intricate politics among the women, though not as quickly as perhaps she should have to succeed in her overriding goal: attracting the Emperor’s attention quickly so that she could assist her mother.
The most intriguing aspect of this book is the interpersonal dynamics between the women and the elaborate political games in which they engage. In ancient China (and in many other places), external power belongs to the men. At the Emperor’s Court, a woman’s worth and power derives from the interest displayed by the Emperor as well as the success in bearing the Emperor male heirs. Because access to and the favor of the Emperor is a scarce resource, the relationships between the women are fraught with intrigue and power struggles. Mei learns this the hard way when she is betrayed by a woman whom she believed was a friend and almost mentor.
Throughout the book, she faces dilemmas about whom to trust and to align with. Making these choices becomes even more difficult when she develops a friendship with and later an attraction to a young man whom she learns is the Emperor’s son. As this book progresses, she learns from each mistake and further cements her own power base though the book ends before that power is fully realized. Thankfully, there’s another book in the series and I plan to read it. If you enjoy novels about relationships between women and women finding their own inner strength through those relationships, you will enjoy this book.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book for me was that the language felt too contemporary. It’s a challenge writing of an ancient time in a vernacular that modern readers will enjoy, but in general I found the dialogue too simplistic.
Reviewing this book has been a challenge for me because I wanted to like it more. Historical Chinese novels are a favorite genre for me, but the downside is that I can’t help but compare one book to another. Compared to other novels I’ve read set in similar time periods or of young women who find themselves in an Emperor’s court forced to survive on their wit, I didn’t enjoy this book as much. It doesn’t feel fair to even raise that comparison, however, when I’ve read and continue to read umpteen books set it in the Regency period. Thus, I’d still recommend this book but urge readers to follow-up to it by exploring other Chinese or Chinese American authors who write historical fiction and/or historical romance set in China, including but not limited to Anchee Min, Jung Chang, Jeannie Lin and more.