During the Tang Dynasty, a woman named Heavenlight rises to become the most powerful woman in 7th century China. Born into the Wu clan, of noble parents, at the age of five she is sent to a monastery to mourn the death of her grandmother. Life in the monastery is harsh and austere. After some time, she returns to her family, only to be ostracized by the power-seeking, squabbling members of the clan when her father dies.
A rare and great honor befalls Heavenlight when she is called by decree to the imperial court in the Forbidden City to live amongst the ten thousand concubines all vying for the attention of the emperor. Life in the Forbidden City is lavish, but fraught with sexual shamelessness, conspiracy, murder, and treason. Her astute shrewdness, determined intelligence, and horsemanship skills draw the attention of Prince Little Phoenix. A lifelong friendship blossoms between the two.
After a power struggle and several executions and banishments, Little Phoenix becomes emperor. Heavenlight uses her wisdom and loyalty to help him solidify his position and power. His love for her grows and against much opposition, he marries Heavenlight and makes her Empress.
Shan Sa brings to life Empress Wu, China’s first and only woman who dared become emperor – a controversial story that has captivated and shocked throughout the centuries. Her prose is lyrical and beautiful, and her descriptions of court life in those times are nothing short of spectacular. The story, however, covers over eighty years of history in just over 300 pages. The abundance of characters (all with names and nicknames) and numerous political events can overwhelm because there is not enough time to digest it all. A unique and engaging novel, but the reader must fully concentrate when reading this complex story.