A chronicle of the reign of Chinese Emperor T'ang Minghuang in the eighth century A.D.--and, at 1100-plus pages, surely one of the longest first novels attempted. An artist and an Orientalist joined forces to write it, and their effort seems to have been blessed by a happy balance of yin and yang--the story is, for the most part, dense and entertaining. The authors begin with a list of characters in which they urge the reader to ""say the names out loud a few times."" With such matters of orientation accomplished, we are plunged into the beautiful but eerie world of the T'ang court, where things are seldom what they seem. Why, for instance, has the Emperor--who won a bloody struggle to establish himself on the throne and spent many years ruling China wisely and well--abdicated control, leaving the shifty councilor, Li Lin-fu, at the hell of the great machine of state? Why doesn't Minghuang's trusty eunuch, Kao Li-shi, reveal to him that his beloved crown prince was a murder victim and not a suicide, and who is the clever genius behind the plot to assassinate the Son of Heaven? As these question begin to be answered, the novel blossoms with diverting characters--Kao Li-shih, the truly loyal servant of the T'ang, torn between sparing his lord anguish and acting to hold off disaster; An Lu-shan, once a slave on the northern frontier, who kills and connives his way into the Emperor's good graces and then turns traitor; and the Precious Consort, a dainty young woman skilled in the sexual arts, who inadvertently hastens her husband's fall by lulling him into inaction. Hardly a Chinese The Name of the Rose, as the publisher claims; but while this lacks the philosophical resonance of Eco's book, it's a fine excursion, nonetheless, to a distant time, place, and mind-set.