From the authors of The Court of the Lion (1989): another wittily plotted and peopled, richly entertaining scan of base acts in high places in ancient China, this set during the seventh- century ascendancy and blistering reign of the Empress Wu. Meanwhile, ever so carefully circling amongst webs of deception and evil deeds is the sleuth/magistrate Dee Jen-Chieh (a real personage also seen in Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries series). ``It is interesting to sit in the presence of a true killer,'' magistrate Dee will remark of the Empress Wu after his own days of turmoil are over. But long before his first one-on-one view of Wu, Dee is launched upon sleuthing an ever-accelerating series of crimes after he witnesses the execution of a pathetic, betrayed, simple gardener. And in the imperial city Loyang, the wee newborn daughter of the Lady Wu (consort of the Emperor Kaotsung), is dispatched by Mummy with suffocation. As the Lady Wu wafts upward toward Empress--thanks to the counsel of her mother, Mme. Yang; an icy, unclouded ambition; and tactical brilliance--various relatives, sons, and lovers--as well as an Emperor and his venerable powerful advisors--fall like sheaves. The intrigued magistrate, already involved in solving the murders of wealthy ``suicides'' found floating in the canal, suggests that Tibetan monk/magician Hsueh Huai-i spy in the palace Loyang. (The monk is also a real person--a Rasputin to the Empress.) Eventually, Hsueh blooms in royal favor and gains political control over all agencies of a state religion, encouraging a kind of extravagant practice of Buddhism--in the light of rationalist Confucianism, an ``alien'' excess. Hsueh, however, has an even darker obsession. Skillfully, Dee solves horrendous murders, escapes death himself, suffers his own awful family, lures the corrupt into his net--and, at the last, sees into the heart of Wu: ``Like an ancient cave uninhabited for centuries, a stillness and emptiness....'' In concept, balance, and wit: a simply splendid entertainment.