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French novelist Levi may borrow from the history of the world's first true empire in 3rd Century BC China, but this grandly scaled story of empire-building, brutal court intrigue and the truly far-out results of power's corruption hovers in the realm of a timeless political allegory. It's an exotic, gifted impersonation of classical literature, but with a slow, indulgent pace that may bore as many as are captivated. Several major stories are told, but the backbone figure is Ordinance, a boy king who rule with increasing tyranny for nearly 40 years until, broken by a failed quest for immortality and by successive attempts on his life, he retreats into a palace of mechanical puppets (free of those subtle flaws that mar humans). In Book One an exiled merchant and fallen minister, Lu Pu-Wei, petitions the king to regain favor; it's a chance for Ordinance to review the files on the machinations and wars orchestrated by Lu Pu-Wei on behalf of Ordinance's father, which brought the family to power and made Lu Pu-Wei the de facto king when the present king was a boy. Book Two describes the rise of another minister, Li Ssu, who trained in sophistry as a young man and becomes Ordinance's closest advisor while former friends are executed. Book Three follows Ordinance's desperate journeys through his vast empire in search of immortality. Levi renders this peculiar world in shimmering detail, fully stocked with inventive rituals and lore. It's an unusual book, best for patient readers with a taste for legends and myth.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich