Book review: The Moon in the Palace – love and intrigue in Tang dynasty court
The premise might be familiar from other blockbusters but the author’s characters have enough depth to keep readers on their toes and the pages turning
The Moon in the Palace
by Weina Dai Randel
The first thing that happens to Mei, the heroine of The Moon in the Palace, she is mistaken for a boy by a monk with the familiar name of Tripitaka. The monk’s next trick is to predict that she will become the first woman emperor of China. “She would dismantle the house of lies but build the temple of the divine … She would be immortal.” Mei’s parents are understandably incredulous, all the more so after her father dies and Mei, her mother, and ne’er-do-well brother are thrown into penury.
Their only glimpse of light is Mei herself, who has been consigned to the service of Emperor Taizong, of the Tang dynasty in the seventh century. If she can catch his famously lascivious eye, she might rescue her ailing family. The fact that Mei is only 13 at the time is less a matter for concern than par for the course.
Weina Dai Randel’s plot follows her ensuing progress up and down the greasy pole of the imperial hierarchy at Chang’an. At the bottom is Yeting Court; the top rung is the Inner Court surrounding the emperor. Responsibility for both Mei’s promotions and demotions frequently lies with Jewel, a friend-turned-nemesis who competes against her for the emperor’s attention. While Mei’s motivations are, for the most part, selfless, Jewel’s are harder to pin down.
Is her habit of making smart if uneasy alliances with powerful women motivated by power? Or does Jewel simply love Taizong, even after he has been left physically and emotionally fragile by an assassination attempt? The assault on his person echoes broader political attacks on China’s borders – from Tibet and an up-and-coming tribe called the “Arabs”.
In this way, sex, gender, wealth, influence and politics slither around each other like the protagonists. Even the largely admirable Mei is not exempt from fraught emotional complications. She falls for Pheasant, a handsome, confident young man she believes is the groom of Crown Prince Taizi, but is actually Li Zhi, the eighth and least unappealing of the emperor’s sons.
Undermining their somewhat souped-up romance (“He beheld me like a flame eating the edge of a paper. Slowly but eagerly he consumed me”) is Mei’s continuing need to seduce his old man: “[Pheasant] was the love of my heart, but also the son of the man whose bed I wished to share,” she says a little too calmly. Her ultimate goal of sleeping with the emperor proves easier and harder than Mei could have foretold. Taizong’s spirit may be willing, but the imperial flesh has other ideas.
The Moon in the Palace is enjoyable, absorbing stuff. The premise might be familiar from similar blockbusters such as Memoirs of a Geisha, but Randel knows how to exploit it for narrative tension: “The gate to the Yeting Court is perpetually open, but the path to return to the Inner Court is long and tortuous.” Randel’s characters have enough depth to keep readers on their toes and the pages turning. Jewel is the most obvious example, at once attractive and scurrilous, calculating and insecure. We might lose patience with her, but we never entirely lose sympathy. Pheasant is a pleasing mix of cocksure humour and vulnerability. Even the normally irreproachable Mei has moments when you aren’t exactly certain whose interests she is defending.
In this, the novel explores intriguing feminist terrain. Randel, who was born in China but now lives in Texas, reminds us that in seventh-century China, “when dynasties were founded, women were no longer free. They were bound by the wishes of their fathers, their husbands, their emperors.” How Mei, Jewel and their peers cope with these restraints asks intriguing questions about loyalty to the sisterhood, about sex as social currency, and whether beating the patriarchy at their own game constitutes a genuine victory. At least some of the answers will be found in the upcoming sequel, The Empress of the Bright Moon. I can’t wait.