EMPRESS by Evelyn McCune


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 A romp through the tumultuous life of Wu Jao, China's only empress. In her first novel, McCune tells an intricate story of lust and rebellion spanning two generations in seventh-century China. At 13, Wu Jao, the second daughter of a minor nobleman's wife, is summoned to serve as a concubine to the Emperor Taitsung. She is placed in a section of the emperor's harem that is scandalized by internal conflict and mysterious deaths. Still, as she has been instructed by her family, Jao remains obedient and keeps her suspicions to herself. She does befriend the caretaker of the emperor's children, thus getting to know the royal heirs. But when Jao deduces the identity of a murderer within her harem and realizes that she is to be the next victim, she goes directly to the emperor--a highly risky and unheard of act. Her frank and gutsy attitude, however, wins the affection of the emperor. The two develop a closeness that becomes the envy of the higher-ranking concubines. When the emperor dies, his concubines are permanently moved to a convent. But the new emperor, Kaotsung, remembers Jao fondly from his childhood and sends orders for her to return to the palace. This unusual act disturbs his jealous wife, who is eventually dethroned, allowing Jao to rise to an even higher status. As the story proceeds, Jao uses her insight and savvy (both personal and political) to become the closest confidante of the emperor, after whose death, when none of her children can govern as well as she, Jao assumes the throne. McCune's expertise in Asian studies is apparent, but the story drags at the end. Filled with the trials and tribulations of palace life, this book often reads more like a creatively written history book than a novel. We meet many characters, but few other than Jao display any depth.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-449-90749-X
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1994