An elegant, imaginative inhabitation of Song-dynasty China of 1,000 years ago by prolific historical novelist Kay (A Song for Arbonne, 1993, etc.).
The time is a fraught one: Nomadic raiders from the Central Asian steppes encroach along the length of the Chinese border, while on the other side of the Great Wall, the old imperial order is cracking. As Kay’s epic tale opens, a young boy, “big for his age, and grimly, unshakably determined to be one of the great men of his day,” can think of nothing more than how he can serve that empire, even as he must face all the odds that stand in his way: being stuck in a backwater without resources or a teacher in a time of drought, famine and widespread infanticide. Lin Shan, meanwhile, has it easier; her father is well-placed in the court, she is “tall for a woman” and pretty without being beautiful, and, well, she escaped being killed just for being female. Naturally, the paths of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are destined to cross—and so they do, but in no way predictably. Kay reveals—and revels in—the endless intrigues of court, which, in the end, will prove to be accomplished, indeed indispensable, Ren’s undoing. Yet that undoing is for the larger good, as Kay tells us, drawing straight from the annals: “The peace between the newest steppe empire and Kitai...would last more than two hundred years...with almost unbroken trade, diplomats exchanged, even gifts between ever-changing emperors on their birthdays, as the rivers flowed, and the years.”
Lucid and lyrical, and skillfully written, with the sweep of an old-fashioned Pearl S. Buck or James A. Michener saga.