Jiang Shicai is still a boy when he learns that it was his father who facilitated the Xianbei Mongols’ invasion of China. Honour-bound to his father, he makes it his life-goal to redeem the family name. He knows perpetual war will only oppress the Han people further, so he joins the Xianbei army to aid in peace-keeping efforts. Overtime he becomes a highly-respected officer and some years later is asked to host Dugu Xuechi, a Military Inspector sent from the royal court. Xuechi is a shallow, lecherous degenerate who spends more time in brothels than on the battlefield. He flaunts himself and his military prowess with little regard for his own safety, but there is something about this reckless abandon which haunts Shicai. As his closest allies are lured by Xuechi’s charm, Shicai finds himself on the opposite side to old friends.
Based loosely on events in China between the 3rd and 6th centuries, this alternate history has a large glossary of Chinese terms, and character names which have intriguing meanings. However, within the first few pages I was put off by the peculiar prose – unimaginative dialogue, grammatical errors, strange phraseology (‘a cup of tea’s worth of awkward silence’), and bewildering word repetition (‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ to name but two). I could find no empathy for the flat characters, from emperor to lowly servant, and believe they deserved everything the Fates doled out. The story is gay-themed romance, but better described, by the author, as ‘angst/drama’ as there is no romance here, and ‘no’ never means ‘no’. Readers should be aware there are scenes of graphic, non-consensual and sometimes brutal sex/rape/torture. The plot is very complex and, thankfully, not predictable (its one redeeming feature), but the writing style did not work for me.