From Publishers Weekly
It takes mere days for a shy, wistful 14-year-old prince to turn into a full-fledged terror as emperor when rule over the fictional Xie Empire is unexpectedly bequeathed to him in this gorgeous bloodbath of a novel, the latest from the author of Rice
and the Raise the Red Lantern series of novellas (filmed by Zhang Yimou). Told in the first person, the book chronicles the boy-emperor Duanbai's matter-of-fact demands, appetites and diversions, which involve everything from settling paltry old scores with lethal force to removing the tongues of discarded concubines. Only a young court eunuch named Swallow manages to elicit something resembling true affection from the young emperor over the course of their peculiar and at times heartbreaking eight-year relationship. Tong's lush prose style ("The corpses looked like wooden logs lying in the snow-covered wheat fields, though the rank smell of blood hovered above them") provides the perfect counterpoint, as well as startling detail and texture, to the perilous court life it recounts. Threaded in are the moral lessons of the monk Juekong, heeded by Duanbai only after it is far too late. Tong claims in his preface that this "scary dream on a rainy night" is set "in no particular time"; applied to today's world, it becomes powerful allegory.
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The latest offering from the author of Raise the Red Lantern
(1993) and Rice
(1995) is a nightmarish tale that borrows from classical Chinese history but is set in no particular time. When his father dies, Duanbai, the 14-year-old prince, becomes the emperor of the Xie Empire. A palace madman's ominous refrain that "calamity will soon befall the Xie Empire" foreshadows the harsh, childish young ruler's demise, and beginning with his surprising inauguration, Duanbai describes his brief time on the throne and the events that depose him. As in Su Tong's previous work, dark currents of inhumanity, violence, and opulent, shimmering detail flow through the story. Duanbai is an unapologetically repugnant narrator, capable of inconceivable cruelty exercised on childish whims. But the crushing repercussions of his dim-witted self-indulgence, naivete, and brutality, as well as Su Tong's mesmerizing cinematic detail, create a powerful, terrifying, dreamlike story that questions the fateful influences that shape and sustain leaders. Gillian EngbergCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved