A simple girl from an inauspicious family, the humble Wu clan, rises to throne of Empress in the seventh-century Tang dynasty in Shan Sa’s chronicle of the rise to power of the Empress Wu. The girl eschews the trappings of femininity for the masculine image of a soldier, her innate talents as a horsewoman and a natural propensity to the rigorous life more attractive to this singular person on the cusp of history.
Thanks to the intercession of the Great General Li Ji, she is sent to the Emperor Eternal Ancestors’ court, there to be known as Talented One. Interred in the court, Talented One struggles against her fate, ill-suited to the infighting and ritualized days of the women’s quarters, the petty rivalries, secret romances and vicious infighting for the Emperor’s favor, where “the most elementary arts of life are meticulously regulated by superstitious codes.”
Recognized for her talent with horses, Talented One flouts convention, adapting the mien of the soldier-woman. In this manner, she meets Little Phoenix, next in succession for the throne, and his beloved sister. The three young people become fast friends, Little Phoenix recognizing in Talented One a loyal nature.
After the death of the Emperor, Talented One is sent to a monastery where she expects to end her days. Instead, she is summoned by the new Emperor, Little Phoenix, the Sovereign Lordly Ancestor. Little Phoenix has need of her advice, although he hopes for more, having already proved himself a connoisseur of women in the first years of his reign.
Once again trapped in the rituals of the court, Talented One quickly becomes a pawn between the two women who vie for the Emperor’s heart; refusing to be embroiled in the fray, she withdraws, concerning herself with the business of governance, acquiring the critical skills that serve her well on the throne: “I was the usurper of men’s dreams.”
Finally succumbing to the sexual advances of Little Phoenix, Talented One, now called Heavenlight by Little Phoenix, falls in love with the Emperor and bears him four sons, changing the paradigm of the relationship. Insinuating herself into power and marriage by means fair and foul, Heavenlight has learned well the Machiavellian ways of politics.
Heavenlight ascends the throne after her husband’s death, declaring a new dynasty, the Wu Dynasty: “I, the ordinary, restless child, the plain adolescent, the commoner who had twice been a nun, would prove to be a Daughter of Heaven.”
Empress Wu accomplishes more than she ever dreamed but pays the price of power, surrounded by perfidy and the constant scheming of those who would usurp the throne. Ultimately she is victorious, albeit aging and lonely: “I had become my own jailer and I was my prisoner.”