This story starts gently, so gently that I had to replay it to remember what actually happened. It is Autumn. There is mist, temple bells, maple leaves falling. There is talk of man-eating tigers. Then we see a boy in a bamboo grove…
This novel definitely takes its time to start, something that was a problem for some readers. But once the engine of the novel actually begins, once we are back in that bamboo grove with that same boy and a famous incident happens, then it is hard to put this book down.
It has the same emotional register as UNDER HEAVEN. We are in the midst of a calm, dignified people, who revere learning. Again, we spend most of our time at court or with people connected to the court, in the midst of wealth and sophistication. We see extreme intelligence, not to see deviousness on the part of the main character (the boy in the bamboo grove) and a former prime minister. We see an unusual woman who can write brilliantly, who is celebrated for her calligraphy as well as her poems and songs.
If this sounds too calm to pique your attention, do not worry. This story is set in China in the 1120s, a time of great upheaval and violence, as the Steppe nomads battle the Chinese for control of territory. (This struggle eventually ends in 1271 with the installation of a steppe nomad as Emperor of China, in the shape of Kublai Khan.)
Again, there is a love story. This time, the author does not give you an ending, but rather a series of events that you have to piece together to understand how it ended. Five stars.