This is the first historical fiction focused on ancient China that I’ve ever read. Generally, my historical fiction tastes stay in Europe as I have this thing for kings and queens, or ancient Egypt and Rome. Why I never strayed into Asia is, frankly, a mystery to me because the culture is beautiful and fascinating and they have Emperors which satisfies why I lean towards Europe… Anyway, I’m just making excuses as to why it took me so long to read “The Moon in the Palace”. The story follows Mei, one of the Emperor’s concubines, who is told that she has a great destiny ahead of her, though she is unsure what shape it will take. Mei is from the Wu family, so given the subtitle is “a novel of Empress Wu”, you can kind of guess where that destiny leads, though that doesn’t come into play in the first book of this duology.
I won this book a couple of years ago in a big “Girl Power” giveaway from Book Riot, and I have been slowly making my way through the books that came in that package. I can see why this book was added to that giveaway: the rise of a lowly concubine through the, often, deadly ranks of China’s Inner Court as she rises to become Empress (eventually), written by a woman author of Chinese descent… this has all the check boxes of a strong feminist book. But that aside, the book has some incredibly lovely prose, and Weina put in a ton of research to make sure that Mei’s story is as factually accurate as possible, and the things she changes for dramatic purposes she is very upfront about at the end of the book, so I never felt deceived or that I was only getting someone’s opinion on how history did, or should have, unfolded. I loved getting a glimpse into ancient China and how the Emperor collected all these concubines like beautiful flowers, how there was a schedule for when certain ladies would get to bed The One Above All, how they viewed the Emperor as a god, and the complex traditions and beliefs they had when it came to good days for marriages or funerals according to the court astrologist. I really enjoyed stepping out of my norm with this historical fiction and immersing myself in China’s colorful imperial court.
However, while the writing was lovely and really captured the feel of ancient China—at least to me, but really, what would I know about that?—the chemistry between Mei and the young man who tempts her away from the Emperor and her destiny, and just really connecting to Mei in general, was lacking. We are shown Mei’s fear in certain situations, but it’s hard to see her passion, the things she desires, or even being all that active in obtaining her goals. I didn’t understand why Mei fell in love, as the dialogue between her and her love interest—and most characters actually—is fairly limited. It’s usually implied, but that doesn’t have me believing that these characters genuinely care for one another, either. There was very little emotional turmoil, desperation, or anger on Mei’s part, which made her feel a bit flat to me, too robotic in a court filled with beauty and intrigue. Everything about Mei is straightforward, as if her only purpose is to convey information rather than being a fully fleshed out character that has her own traits that would make her feel like someone who is, you know, real and is actively trying to control her destiny, while fighting up the ranks of the Inner Court.
Did I enjoy this book? Yes, the prose Weina uses really does make this a beautiful read, which is magnified by the ancient Chinese setting. I am intrigued enough by the story to continue with the duology as Mei still has a ways to go in achieving this destiny/prophecy. Plus, I LOVE historical fictions that stay as historically accurate as possible, because I like learning about things I am unfamiliar with in an entertaining way. But I’ll most likely get the second book from my local library because I just didn’t love this book enough to make me rush out and get the sequel. The book is pretty slow, and based on where it ends, I feel like the sequel—at least for the first half—may be pretty redundant to the first book, also diminishing my desire to read what’s to come immediately. But I digress. This book was fine, the writing style being one of the highlights for me, but the lack of character depth is a big detractor as well, making this book a pretty solid 3 stars for me. It was fine, but not great, and just interesting enough for me to consider reading the sequel at some point in the future.
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