The Empress of Bright Moon

Written by Weina Dai Randel
Review by Kate Braithwaite

The Empress of Bright Moon, Weina Dai Randel’s second novel of Mei, the woman who became Empress Consort Wu, the only female emperor of China, from 684 to 705 AD, picks up the story that began in The Moon in the Palace.

The old Emperor Taizong is dying, and his son and Mei’s lover, Pheasant, is declared his heir. But Mei has been Taizong’s concubine, even if only in name. How can she now be with Pheasant, particularly when tradition demands that all of Emperor Taizong’s women must spend the rest of their lives in prayer in Buddhist monasteries? And will Pheasant be able to become Emperor in more than name, when his own uncle and wife have their own agendas and ambition for seizing power for themselves?

As in her first novel, Randel is tremendously successfully at portraying the world of 7th-century China while developing a forward-moving and engrossing drama. Difficulties and challenges abound for Mei and Pheasant, not least in the form of Pheasant’s dangerous wife, Lady Wang. Randel is particularly effective in her depictions of women and, in Mei, successfully brings to life a woman who, history shows, lived an extraordinary life in a world where women’s actions were normally rigidly constrained. Lady Wang is a worthy opponent for Mei, and Randel makes sure she is a multi-faceted character and not simply a pantomime villain.

This novel, and its precursor, should appeal to anyone who loves to disappear into another world with believable characters and high-stakes conflict. Highly recommended.