A compelling read and surprisingly easy to follow, given its exotic complexity.

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EMPRESS

In sharp contrast to her tightly focused previous novel (The Girl Who Played Go, 2003), Shan Sa, the China-born French novelist and painter, has written a sweeping panoramic historical novel about the seventh century’s Tang dynasty and China’s only woman emperor.

When a self-made timber merchant who has risen into minor nobility dies, he leaves his well-born wife and daughters at his crude family’s mercy until a visiting magistrate singles out the middle daughter, Heaven Light, for her intelligence. At 12, Heaven Light is summoned to the Imperial City to be one of 10,000 women who serve the Emperor. One of the Emperor’s wives sexually initiates Heaven Light (a not-uncommon practice within this Inner City, where no men are allowed) while her athletic skills attract the attention of the Emperor, whose secretary she becomes. She helps his young son, sweet-natured but uncertain Little Phoenix, become heir, but because she served his father, court rules say she cannot be Little Phoenix’s lover, let alone wife. Instead, she enters a monastery. Three years later, Little Phoenix impregnates her, with a son no less, so she can return to court as an official concubine. Intrigue follows intrigue. By age 30, Heaven Light has become Empress Wu. Since her husband lacks interest in government, the Empress becomes de facto ruler, consolidating power by whatever means necessary, convinced that she acts for the nation’s good. When Little Phoenix dies, she’s 52. Her oldest son has died; another has been banished for attempting a coup against his father; and the third happily turns power over to his mother. She becomes Supreme Empress, ruling with an iron hand, but also introducing reforms. Deified by the people as Eternal Empress August Sovereign Divinity, at the end of her long life she acknowledges to herself that she has been “a usurper” who forged the divine messages that legitimized her power.

A compelling read and surprisingly easy to follow, given its exotic complexity.

Pub Date: May 2, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-081758-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2006

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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