Xiong (The A to Z of Medieval China, 2010, etc.) tells the story of Chinese Emperor Taizong of Tang in this historical novel.
The China of the late Sui dynasty faces barbarian threats from outside its borders and rebellious barons within them. When Li Shimin’s father, the Duke of Tang, decides he must replace the sovereign in order to restore stability to the state, the teenager finds himself a general in command of a rebel army. His relatives become the rulers of the new Tang dynasty in 618, though their reign is just as fraught with intrigue and treachery as that of the Sui. Li Shimin turns out to be the shrewdest tactician of the family. In the July 2 coup, the crown prince “eliminated his challengers, effectively sidelined his father, and emerged as the true power-holder at court.” Forcing his father to abdicate the throne, Li Shimin becomes the Emperor of Tang. He then sets to ruling the fractured prefectures of China, adopting policies of benevolence and reconciliation and accepting critical appraisals from his court. He uses all his skills to bring his nation into a new golden age, going down in history as one of the greatest rulers China has ever known. Supplementary material includes a bibliography, chronology, and a 20-page glossary/dramatis personae that the reader should put to great use. The novel, more fictionalized history than historical fiction, essentially reads like a work of popular history, with many scenes dramatized. The book dispenses with superfluous plot elements of the sort one would expect to find in a historical novel but includes many explanatory passages that read as though they’ve been excerpted from a textbook. While this may sound stilted, it actually makes for an engaging cross-genre reading experience. It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-modern texts from which it takes its inspiration, where fact, legend, and anecdote sit comfortably side by side. The technique lends a compelling veracity to the events even if it forces Xiong to hold his characters at a greater distance from the reader.
An engrossing fictionalized history that examines an ingenious and powerful Chinese ruler.