The Lacquered Talisman
Epic in scope, this novel of 1300s China is absolutely fascinating. Set at a time when the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty is foundering, clearly losing the “Mandate of Heaven,” The Lacquered Talisman is the story of the bean-curd seller’s son who, after many trials and tribulations, became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 BCE). First known as “Fortune,” Zhu Yuanzhang isn’t even the eldest son in his family, but the youngest. Smart, filially pious, and—although Fortune doesn’t yet realize it—ambitious, Fortune determinedly makes his way in a ruthless world. Goat-herder, Buddhist monk, wandering beggar—Fortune is all these and more. He never gives up and does his best to improve himself. This first book in a series about Zhu Yuanzhang takes him from toddler to neophyte soldier and holds the reader’s interest from beginning to end.
Poor peasant boy rises to become emperor—it sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s real history, and this book illuminates an extraordinary time and place. It was a grim delight to read (people frequently have a thoroughly lousy time, what with all the famines and plagues), and Dennis makes the characters and action clear even if you’re not at all familiar with Chinese history. I look forward to the sequel.