The Emperor and the Endless Palace: A Romantasy Novel

Written by Justinian Huang
Review by Lee Lanzillotta

Set in three different periods, The Emperor and the Endless Palace is a fantastical, queer take on the past life romance. In 4 BCE, Dong Xian, a young courtier with a strong knowledge of classical poetry and a reputation for seduction, is tasked by the emperor’s meddling, manipulative mother with seducing him. In the 1700s, a mysterious young man requests that innkeeper, He Shican, acquire a mysterious medicine from his former lover, Dr. Qi, in order to help his ailing grandmother. This medicine is truly a magical potion from legend. And, in present-day Los Angeles, med student River becomes entangled with a tech billionaire’s mysterious lover, Joey, an artist who has created countless statues and portraits of River, long before they actually met in person. Each of these stories is engaging on its own. While they seem disconnected at first, by the halfway point they come together quite cleverly.

References to shared peaches and cut sleeves, two poetic metaphors for love between men, which derive from Chinese legend, abound. The shared peach comes up most often, while the story of the emperor who cut off his voluminous sleeve to avoid waking his sleeping lover is recreated in the sequences set in 4 BCE. The legend of the fox spirit, who takes a human form and brings destruction to the men they seduce, also appears in multiple timelines. At least one character is, in fact, a fox spirit in disguise.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the ending is creepy, almost disturbing, in a way that cleverly acknowledges the weirdness of the idea of lovers from past lives being reunited, and the dangers of obsessive romantic attachment more generally. It’s not a typical romance ending and all the better for it.