Empress (P.S. Series)

( 35 )


One of China's most controversial figures, Empress Wu was its first and only female emperor, emerging in the seventh century during the great Tang Dynasty to usher in a golden age. Throughout history, her name has been defamed and her story distorted. But now, after thirteen centuries, Empress Wu flings open the gates of the Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale—revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.

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One of China's most controversial figures, Empress Wu was its first and only female emperor, emerging in the seventh century during the great Tang Dynasty to usher in a golden age. Throughout history, her name has been defamed and her story distorted. But now, after thirteen centuries, Empress Wu flings open the gates of the Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale—revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.

Writing with epic assurance, poetry, and vivid historic detail, Shan Sa plumbs the psychological and philosophical depths of what it means to be a striving mortal in a tumultuous, power-hungry world. Empress is a great literary feat and a revelation for the ages.

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Editorial Reviews

Alan Cheuse
“Luxurious and intelligent . . . part pageant, part politics as ballet; a lavish portrayal of life in early civilized China.”
“Brilliant . . . illuminates the life and times of one of the ancient world’s most powerful, capable, and overlooked women.”
Library Journal
Reading this book is like watching the Chinese movies Hero or House of Flying Daggers. There is great natural beauty and impressive pageantry, punctuated by sudden bursts of violence, and it is hard to keep all the characters and their stories straight. A Beijing native who now lives in France, Sa (The Girl Who Played Go) tells the story of a young girl called Heavenlight who lives in seventh-century China. Heavenlight rises to great heights as Empress Wu, the first empress of China, ruling alone as emperor after her husband dies. Holding on to this extraordinary power isn't for the faint of heart, with treachery and insurrections everywhere. Although she accomplishes much during her reign, the empress rules with an iron hand, eliminating anyone who is a threat, including many family members. Novels about life in imperial courts in the Far East have proved popular lately. Readers who enjoyed Anchee Min's Empress Orchid, a novel about China's last empress, who ruled some 1200 years after Wu, may enjoy this one, too.-Leslie Patterson, Blanding P.L., Rehoboth, MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 thepeople 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061829604
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/15/2009
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 321
  • Sales rank: 623,827
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Shan Sa was born in Beijing and had her first poems, essays, and stories published at the age of eight. In 2001 her novel The Girl Who Played Go won the Goncourt Prize. The author of Empress, she is also a celebrated artist who has had prominent exhibitions in Paris and New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Endless moons, an opaque universe, thunder, tornadoes, the quaking earth. Rare moments of peace; forehead up against my knees, arms around my head, I thought, I listened, I longed not to exist. But life was there, a transparent pearl, a star revolving slowly on its own axis. I was blind. My eyes stared into that other world, that other existence that dwindled a little every day. Its colors were extinguished, its images blurred. I was still left with cries of astonishment and feeble sobbing. I was oppressed by the impotence of these vague recollections, burned by their melancholy. Who am I? I asked Death as it crouched at my feet.

Death moaned and gave no reply.

Where am I? I could hear laughter, voices saying, "It will surely be a boy, my Lord. He is moving. He is full of life."

It mattered little who I would be. I was already weary of this vastness. I was weary of hoping, of waiting, of being myself-the center of the world.

I was soothed by the rustle of the wind. I listened to the trickle of rain. Across my sky in which the sun never rose, I could hear a little girl singing. I was lulled by her gentle, innocent voice. My sister, I foresaw great sorrow for her. A hand tried to caress me. But a wall lay between us. Oh Mother, the shadow outlined against the screen of my thoughts, do you realize I am already old, condemned to live within the prison of your flesh?

IN THE DEPTHS of the lake, in the sepia-colored waters, I swiveled round, curled up into a ball, spread my limbs, turned circles. Day by day my body grew, weighing heavily on me, strangling me. I would have liked to be the prick of a needle, a grain of sand, the .ash of sunlight in a drop of water; I was becoming .esh, an exploding .esh, a mountain of folds and blood, a marine monster. One breath raised me up and rocked me. I was irascible. I was furious with myself, with the woman who was my jailor, with Death-my only friend.

They waited for me. I heard someone whisper that the boy would be called Heavenlight. The rustle of preparations hampered my meditation. They spoke of clothes, celebrations, wet nurses: plump, white, and sturdy. They were forbidden to speak my name, for fear that demons would possess my soul. They were waiting for me to pick up where their own destinies had left off. I felt pity for these fervent creatures, so affable and eager. They did not yet know that I would destroy their world to build my own. They did not know that I would bring deliverance- but with fire and ice.

One night I awoke with a start. The waters were seething. Furious waves broke over me. I held myself tightly, struggling with my fear and concentrating on my breathing, on my gnawing pain. When the tide surged, I was launched into a narrow opening. I slid between the rocks. My body bled. My skin tore. My head imploded. I balled my fists to stop myself from screaming.

Someone pulled me by my feet and slapped my buttocks. With my head hanging down, my cries spewed from me. I was wrapped in a cloth that .flayed me. I heard a man's anxious voice: "Boy or girl?"

No one replied. The man grabbed me and tried to tear open my swaddling.

He was interrupted by a woman's quiet wail:

"Another girl, my Lord."

"Ah!" he cried before dissolving in tears.

A dozen women watched over me as I grew. Three wet nurses took turns quenching my thirst. My appetite was frightening. I was already laughing. My eyes were great black pearls rolling in their sockets. I looked on the world day and night, never wanting to sleep. My mother was worried by my constant agitation; she called on a number of exorcist monks. But no one succeeded in expelling the demon from me.

I eventually grew weary of their fears. Behind the gauze of my mosquito net, I pretended to sleep to have some peace, while a woman sang as she rocked my cradle. Another waved a fan to waft away the odd fly that had strayed into the perfumed universe. With my eyelids closed, I let my thoughts fly away.

The kingdom that Father ruled as absolute master was divided into two parts. The Front Quarter was reserved for men. Stewards, secretaries, accountants, cooks, pages, valets, grooms, guards, and lackeys busied themselves from the .rst light of dawn. Government officials took their orders and set off on horseback. Troops of soldiers undertook training exercises all day long in the great courtyard to the side. This virile world ended before the vermillion gate where the gynaeceum began. Behind the high, snow-colored wall lived hundreds of women: old, young, and little girls. They wore their hair in topknots pinned with .owers and had jade rings threaded into their silk belts. It was the eighth year of Martial Virtue;1 fashion favored the pallor of early spring: dresses were crocus yellow, the soft green of narcissus leaves, the pleasing pink of cherry blossom, and the crimson of the sun reflected in a lake. Sweepers, servants, seamstresses, embroiderers, bearers, wet nurses, cooks, governesses, stewards, gracious attendants, singers, dancers . . . all of them moved slowly, with composure, and spoke in hushed tones. They rose at dawn, bathed at dusk. They were the flowers of my father's garden, blossoming to compete with the beauty of one person alone.

Mother dressed soberly. Her least little cough was a command, her every gaze an order. She was naturally elegant. Fashion changed, a flitting butterfly, Mother maintained an eternal springtime. She was of the Yang clan from the Hong Nong region; one of the thirty most noble families in the Empire. As a daughter, niece, and sister to eminent ministers, a cousin to imperial brides, and a close relation to the Emperor and the princesses, Mother wore her dignity like a jewel, a cloak, a crown. She gave alms in the monasteries and distributed food to beggars. She was a fervent Buddhist, observing a vegetarian diet and showing no interest in the turmoil of this lowly world. She copied out the sutras in her careful hand and dreamed of reaching the land of Extreme Joy, the kingdom of Buddha Amida, He who launches countless rays of light.

Mother was cold, delicate, soothing. Her gentleness was cutting and opaque and reminded me of the jade disc that hung over my cradle. I wanted her. I grew agitated waiting. She would appear from time to time after several days' absence. When she arrived, her long silk train and her endless muslin shawl set the curtains to my room aquiver. The ground kissed by her slippered feet whispered with pleasure. Her perfume went before her. It smelled of sunlight, snow, the East Wind, flowers laden with happiness.

She never took me in her arms, happy to contemplate me from a distance. My eyes consumed her hungrily. Her lips were two scarlet petals. Her face was as perfectly smooth as a mirror. Beneath her eyebrows, which had been shaved and redrawn in the shape of cicada wings, her eyes betrayed her disappointment. She had desired a boy.

THE POMEGRANATE TREES exploded into blossom and the summer arrived. My one hundredth day was grounds for a celebration. Mother had the pavilion in the middle of the lake opened up and gathered together her noble friends and relations for a sumptuous banquet.

In that room surrounded by the glittering water, I was passed from hand to hand. I was stroked and petted. Servants came up the steps to lay down gifts. One lady offered me a pair of emerald bracelets-she was convinced that my sparkling black eyes were a sign of intelligence. Another had nine gold ingots brought on a silver tray, saying that my wide forehead was an omen: I had been placed under the sign of a wealthy and happy marriage. Another bedecked me with nine rolls of brocade-she said that my straight nose, my chubby cheeks, and my round mouth foretold exceptional fertility: I would have many sons.

Mother was happy. With a nod of her head, she ordered for a carpet of silk to be unrolled in the middle of the banquet, for me to be freed of my swaddling and to be seated. The servants laid a dozen objects out around me. I forgot this gathering of pale women in all their .nery, caught hold of an ice-cold toy and tried to lift it. There was a general murmuring and one woman said: "She chooses neither the makeup box of Beauty, nor the jade of Nobility, nor the flute of Music, nor the book of Wisdom, nor the quill of Poetry, nor the abacus of Commerce, nor the rosary of Spirituality. My dear cousin, your daughter's future will be singularly unusual. It is truly a shame that she is not a boy."

"Indeed, your Highness, it is a great shame," agreed another.

"Ah well, we must not let this distress us," exclaimed a sonorous voice, ringing with pride. "In our time women can demonstrate prowess in a thousand ways. Long ago the great Princess Sun of Ping fought for her father, the August Sovereign. At her funeral, His Majesty called for the trumpets and drums to be sounded, an honor reserved for men. Your daughter has a curved forehead to accept the celestial breath, she has luminous eyes, a strong jaw, generous lips; she has touched of her father's sword. Excellent! My dear, from this day you must dress her as a boy. Give her an education worthy of her own determination. The daughter of a general likes commandment. I can see her as the mistress of a noble warrior household!"

Soon I felt the need to venture out into the world rather than receiving it from my cradle. Unable to stand upright on my feet, I crawled.

One step toward the unknown meant coordinating all my muscles. Pinning my eyes on an object, keeping my ears alert and my mouth open to roar silently, I raised an arm, a leg, I crawled my way through the universe. A bearded man leaned toward me. He was wrapped in a silk coat lined with sable, and seemed to have come from far, far away. When I saw him, I heard the thundering of hooves, the wailing of the wind, the unbridled moans of the courtesans. The bestial smell of him made me shiver. His gruff kisses tore my cheek.

There was a little girl watching me. I was fascinated by her pink complexion, .ne features, sturdy legs, dark eyes, and the wooden duck she trailed behind her. After looking carefully up and down, she put a .nger in my hand, and I squeezed it until she .ushed red and began to cry. "You must not hurt your sister," my wet nurse told me. She did not know that later, as she had in those days of innocence, Elder Sister would beg me to be her torturer.

In the ninth year of Martial Virtue, the Emperor abdicated in favor of his son. Twelve moons later, the new sovereign recalled Father from the noble province of Yang where he had been sent on a quest, and named him Governor Delegate of the province of Li where an insurrection under Prince Li Xiao Chang had just been repressed.

I was two years old. I stumbled around among the wooden cases and the carriages covered in oiled drapes, unaware of the suffering of a father exiled from Court. The horses and the oxen trod the endless road that dissolved into the horizon. I devoured the world through an opening in the carriage door. Outside, the colors jostled and furrowed, spreading out and contorting. We shall see each other again, Long Peace, my native town!

The wheels' rattles over the stony track kept me awake. We crossed a vast plain where the arid soil had been cracked and crazed by the sun. Hordes of children in rags came and prostrated themselves as we passed by. I was astonished that such thin, dirty creatures existed at all. Mother asked for food to be handed out to them: biscuits, bread, and rice meal, which they swallowed while it was still scalding hot.

I was tormented by questions. I kept asking them all day long: "What is hunger? Why do the fields need to be cultivated? What is wheat? How is bread made?"

After a month of traveling, the caravan embarked into the misty mountains. The track was carved into the cliffs and, further down, the Jia Ling river roared as it hurled itself against the tormented rocks. Forts rose up from the peaks; military outposts opened their barriers for us. The imperial soldiers were brutish men who drank from chipped bowls and ate haunches of beef with their bare hands. In the evenings, around the camp fires, they beat their drums and sang. The moon rose, and I fell asleep listening to the roar of tigers. When the first hint of dawn appeared, birds launched themselves in pursuit of the sun, while monkeys .ed the light, screeching as they swung from one strand of creeper to the next. "Why is the sky going red? Why are the trees so still? Why do the boatmen slash their own faces?" Streaming with blood, they raised anchor and threw themselves into the torrents.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 35 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2008

    A Favorite.

    I thought that this book was very captivating and moving, and it is a favorite of mine. Sa is a fantastic author, and shows her talent best in this book with her vivid, imaginative settings and elegant prose. Some of the side characters are easy to forget, but there is a family tree at the beginning that helps to keep them straight. I didn't find this book "disgusting" in the least, apparently unlike some others who have reviewed. It's written from the eyes of another culture and age, and in particular the passage from pages 59-60 was meant to show Gracious Wife's cruelty and abusive nature. Her actions aren't praised in the novel at all. There are other scenes in the book that may seem odd to the Western reader, but understanding it in the context of a different culture is essential. With this in mind, I probably wouldn't suggest it for younger or less mature readers. Overall, a beautiful piece of literature.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2012


    A beautifully written book! Although I would not recommend it for young or immature readers because of the prose in which it is written, it might be misconstrued as boring and not enough of a "story". But I found it intriguing with such detailed descriptions of the politics, customs, and scenery of that era, as well as Empress Wu's struggle to maintain power in a male dominant arena. Very poetic and an awesome read for history buffs!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 2, 2011


    A different approach to storytelling. sometimes it was a bit difficult to follow, but helped me visualize the politics and customs of a time that I knew little about. I would recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2010

    Very poetic and unique.

    Shan Sa's eloquent writing style-from page one-reveals an exotic and elegant world. The book is a unique and intriguing perspective on the biography of a time faded powerful female figure. While the book is generally hard to follow and the intellectual writing style is hard to decode, I highly recommend it-especially to anyone interested in history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting Prospective

    I've seen a few Chinese dramas and read some short historical accounts of Empress Wu. The author's style of taking the reader through the tumultous years of this unusual woman's life is riveting. I couldn't put the book down. Some of my friends and relatives have preconceived ideas about how power-hungry and ruthless Empress Wu was. It is easy to forget what kind of world she was born into and that a "progressive-thinking" woman was not always tolerated. Women were sometimes treated as nothing more than heir-producing machines and momentary diversions to be used and discarded at the leisure of their masters. Some historians may judge her harshly but I think she deserves an unbiased viewpoint and be given some credit for her ability to survive the political career for as long as she did. Empress Wu has earned her place in history along with other powerful queens: Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, to name a few. Her ruthless intrigues and other characteristics do not make her a stellar ruler but she is definitely unforgettable and impressive figure in Chinese history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2008

    very very slow paced

    when i picked up this book, i was very excited from the excerpts. It starts out somewhat interesting..... but the description was just too much!! I remember reading pages and pages at one point about the the scenery and backgroud..... no one needs to know that much!! there is no real turning point or climax, you never feel finish a chapter feeling satisfied or even curious as to what happens next, in fact you keep hoping its ending. It is just a monotone book where the narrator talks on and on in a very monotone language. Even if someone dies, you almost don't care bc it is written and described in such dry manner. i almost got to the end and had to stop bc it just dragged and dragged on!! the author writes beautifully, almost poetic... but gets way to caught up in trying to show how much history and data she knows. Its almost not understandable at some point and makes u wonder on many occasions .... where is this going, and why do i need to know this. Could have saved some time and left out A LOT of details.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2007

    A reviewer

    The plot has a few exciting moments, but overall it moves quite slowly. Too many details (for example, pages of lists of parade participants!) make the book downright tedious at times. The main character is arrogant, and minor characters are poorly developed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2014

    Why sj Why you shiuld read it...

    There is undoubtably extreamly complex language but it is readable an the farther you read the more intresting and twisted the scheme evolves into. The author shows a very human like veiw of the characters point of view with deep yet smothered emotional characteristics. Im in high school and find this book deeply compelling. Definetly a must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2012


    This book was sooooo boring and tedious. I got all the way to pg. 232 and couldn't bring myself to keep reading. There were some good parts but they were few and far between. I also did not like the main character at all. She was cold, calculating, and power-hungry. Nothing in this book made me feel for her or care what happened to her. One good thing I will say for this book (and the reason I gave it two stars instead of one) is that the language was beautiful and very poetic. But it's almost like the author concentrated more on that than on developing the characters and the plot. Do yourself a favor and pass this one up for a Lisa See or Amy Tan book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 12, 2009


    I only got through the third chapter in this book I found it incredibly boring and at times kinda hard to understand.At times it felt like I was reading a poem and the story was hard to fallow.In the front of the book it said its translated by someone that's probably why it reads differently than most books I have read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2009

    the cover drew me in!

    Very interesting and educational...but bloody!

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  • Posted June 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    I normally love historical fiction and was excited to read about Empress Wu; however, I was completely disappointed. The writing was too descriptive and almost read like a monotone drone. There was alot of historical detail (normally good), but the characters lacked emotion and there was no climax. Sadly, I was happy once the empress finally died and the story could end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2008

    A reviewer

    I loved this book, and while I might not give it to a 10 year old to read, I really don't think any adult should have a problem with this book. The sexual scenes only happend a few times, compared to how long this book is that really isn't a lot. To me, this book was about passion, yes sexual passion, political passion, passion about life and death, passion to become what no one else though you could. I would reccomend this book to anyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2007

    Two pages ruined it for me

    At first I was enchanted by the book and would read it any time I could. Although it was sometimes hard to follow, Shan Sa is a captivating writer. However, I was so disgusted by what happen on pages 59-60 that I dropped the book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2008

    A reviewer

    This was a captivating book that in my opinion was beautifully written. I agree that pages 59, 60 and similar events in the book were a bit obscene for my taste but I was able to look over it and not let those events completely discourage me from the book. (I'm 15 and I do caution children who are younger than me to beware of those scenes that are portrayed). The attention to detail gave me a better depiction of the fashion, culture and architecture of that time. The book did have its dull moments but it made up for it with climactic points that further engrossed the reader. Overall I was content with the ending and enjoyed the novel. It gave the reader a thorough image of life in the tang dynasty and gave an insight on a forgotten empress.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2007


    This book was very dragged out and sometimes made me fall asleep. There were times that too much of it went into a horrid amount of details, right down to the design of a specific garment. Although I did learn about a specific time of China's history, there was nothing special about it that kept me wanting to read. I had to force myself to finish it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2006

    Okay But not Great

    I just finished the book today. It felt like a historical book written by the main character full of ego and pomp. The characters where difficult to track and I kept having to go back in the book to try to remember who they were which tells me that they weren't that interesting to begin with. Tons of fanfare and fluff. Not my favorite read. I think the story line could of been little more cohesive and maybe that would of grabbed my interest. The overall idea seemed interesting but poorly put together.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2006

    good interesting read, but too long

    Starts nice and crisp and its great to get familiar with the chinese dynasties, it also captures the greed for power and the extravangazas quite beautifully. the fight against ageing and its remedies do make for interesting thought... But the family tree's too complicated and its difficult to keep track of each concubine and her offsprings and the story towards the end kindoff stretches on too long.. In all beautifully and dramactically wriiten.. enjoyed the read...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews

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