We’ll continue our exploration of the exotic this month with a group of novels set in the Far East, in lands full of beauty, rich in history and culture.
Beginning farthest back in time and at the highest social level, we have two views of the only female Chinese emperor, Wu Tse-tien. Weina Dai Randel’s more favorable picture of the Iron Empress, THE MOON IN THE PALACE (EMPRESS OF BRIGHT MOON DUOLOGY BOOK 1) begins soon after young Mei is first brought to the palace, only one of many beautiful concubines scheming to attract the attention of the One Above All with their beauty, their gifts of jade and calligraphy, or their seductive talents. Mei’s curiosity and intelligence win her few friends among the competing concubines, but they do make an impression on the Emperor. As she is poised to become the favorite, a bitter rivalry erupts that will require all her skill and wit to survive.
There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power
A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China―where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death―and the woman who came to rule it all.
Women’s Fiction Historical [Sourcebooks, On Sale: March 1, 2016, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781492613565 / eISBN: 9781492613572]
The tale continues in THE EMPRESS OF BRIGHT MOON (EMPRESS OF BRIGHT MOON DUOLOGY BOOK 2.) Mei’s master, the Emperor Taizong, has died, and her lover becomes the new Emperor, Gaozong. But his brother-in-law, declared Regent, has Mei banished to a Buddhist monastery. After years of loneliness and separation, Mei is freed to return to the palace, where she begins a fierce battle with the Emperor’s wife, Lady Wang, for control over Gaozong’s heart and his empire.
At the moment of the Emperor’s death, everything changes in the palace. Mei, his former concubine, is free, and Pheasant, the heir and Mei’s lover, is proclaimed as the new Emperor, heralding a new era in China. But just when Mei believes she’s closer to her dream, Pheasant’s chief wife, Lady Wang, powerful and unpredictable, turns against Mei and takes unthinkable measures to stop her. The power struggle that ensues will determine Mei’s fate–and that of China.
Surrounded by enemies within the palace that she calls home, Mei continues her journey to the throne in THE EMPRESS OF THE BRIGHT MOON, the second book in Weina Dai Randel’s acclaimed duology. Only by fighting back against those who wish her harm will Mei be able to realize her destiny as the most powerful woman in China.
Historical [Sourcebooks Landmark, On Sale: April 5, 2016, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781492613596 / eISBN: 9781492613602]
A very different take on Empress Wu is presented in IRON EMPRESS by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri. (For those who can’t get enough of the only female emperor, there’s also a more literary-fiction, first-person account, EMPRESS, written by Shan Sa.) Some feminist historians speculate that the Empress has been painted in a negative light for outraging her world by escaping a woman’s proper (lowly) place to achieve supreme power. In this novel, the real historical figures of Magistrate Dee (the inspiration for the mystery/detective series Judge Dee by Robert Van Gulik) and Empress Wu are intertwined, as the educated, introspective Dee Chen-chieh’s efforts to solve a series of bizarre murders eventually brings him to the Imperial Palace where, with the help of her mother and her lover, a rogue monk-magician, Wu conspires, intrigues, and murders to eliminate her rivals and place herself on the throne of power.
Was Empress Wu an intelligent, skillful survivor or maniacal, immoral murderess? Read these selections and decide for yourself!
Leaping ahead a number of centuries, we have THE COURTESAN: A NOVEL by Alexandra Curry. In this tale, we move from an Imperial China locked in tradition to an empire riven with strife over its reluctant move into the modern world. Curry embroiders the little that is known about the real-life figure of Sai Jinhua, a Chinese woman born in the late 1800’s whose astonishing life story reveals the perilous changes taking place in her country. Daughter of a mandarin’s concubine, when her father is executed for political indiscretions and his wife doesn’t want her, the seven-year-old Jinhua is sold to a brothel keeper, where she does menial labor until she is old enough to service clients. One of them, a member of China’s ruling party, falls in love with her, buys her from the madam, and makes her his concubine. When he is sent to Vienna as one of China’s first envoys, Jinhua travels with him and discovers the frightening but fascinating foreign world of the West—where the opportunities and treatment of women are so different. Her eyes opened to a totally different way of living, she returns to a China about to be engulfed by the Boxer Rebellion. Filled with vivid descriptions of daily life and of the tumultuous political situation, Curry provides a unique window into a China torn between the traditions of the past and the demands of the modern era.
A timeless novel of one woman who bridged two worlds in a tumultuous era of East meets West
The Courtesan is an astonishing tale inspired by the real life of a woman who lived and loved in the extraordinary twilight decades of the Qing dynasty. To this day, Sai Jinhua is a legend in her native land of China, and this is her story, told the way it might have been.
The year is 1881. Seven-year-old Jinhua is left an orphan, alone and unprotected after her mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. For seven silver coins, she is sold to a brothel-keeper and subjected to the worst of human nature. Will the private ritual that is her father’s legacy and the wise friendship of the crippled brothel maid be enough to sustain her?
When an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, she enters the close world of his jealous first wife. Yet it is Jinhua who accompanies him–as Emissary to the foreign devil nations of Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and Russia–on an exotic journey to Vienna. As he struggles to play his part in China’s early, blundering diplomatic engagement with the western world, Jinhua’s eyes and heart are opened to the irresistible possibilities of a place that is mesmerizing and strange, where she will struggle against the constraints of tradition and her husband’s authority and seek to find “Great Love.”
Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a changed and changing China, where a dangerous clash of cultures pits East against West. The moment arrives when Jinhua’s western sympathies will threaten not only her own survival, but the survival of those who are most dear to her.
A book that shines a small light on the large history of China’s relationship with the West, The Courtesan is a novel that distills, with the economy of a poem, a woman’s journey of untold miles to discern what is real and abiding.
Historical [Dutton, On Sale: September 8, 2015, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780525955139 / eISBN: 9780698405271]
We shift forward to the twentieth century and travel south to Cambodia for THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES by Kim Fay. When Irene Blum is passed over in favor of a less-experienced man for the curatorship of the museum whose famous Asian collection she has acquired, she mounts an expedition to Shanghai and Cambodia to ferret out a set of copper scrolls described in an old text left her by her father, which are supposed to document the lost world of the Khmer civilization. With such a treasure as inducement, she should be able to obtain a post at any museum in the world—or begin her own. Advised by her mentor to seek out Simone Merlin, a native of Asia familiar with all the Angkorean temples, she plunges into the complex and dangerous world of early 20th-century art collecting, where collectors vie for prizes, some determined to plunder the temples for treasures to take back to the West, some wanting them left in place or studied in museums in the East, some wanting to sell the works to finance anti-colonial crusades. As she travels through the back streets of Shanghai and into the steamy jungles of Cambodia in search of the temple believed to house the scrolls, she confronts the puzzles of the past and of her own life. Filled with vivid descriptions of pre-Maoist China and French Indochina, the novel paints a picture of the turbulent politics of this changing world.
In 1925 the international treasure-hunting scene is a man’s world, and no one understands this better than Irene Blum, who is passed over for a coveted museum curatorship because she is a woman. Seeking to restore her reputation, she sets off from Seattle in search of a temple believed to house the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization. But her quest to make the greatest archaeological discovery of the century soon becomes a quest for her family’s secrets.
Embracing the colorful and corrupt world of colonial Asia in the early 1900s, The Map of Lost Memories takes readers into a forgotten era where nothing is as it seems. As Irene travels through Shanghai’s lawless back streets and Saigon’s opium-filled lanes, she joins forces with a Communist temple robber and an intriguing nightclub owner with a complicated past. What they bring to light deep within the humidity-soaked Cambodian jungle does more than change history. It ultimately solves the mysteries of their own lives.
Mystery Historical [Ballantine Books, On Sale: June 18, 2013, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780345531421 / ]
We conclude our exploration in Hong Kong with THE PIANO TEACHER: A NOVEL by Janice Y.K. Lee. In the early 1940’s, Englishman Will Truesdale falls in love with beautiful Eurasian socialite Tudy Liang. But the Japanese advance in World War II demolishes their world, sending Will to an internment camp and forcing Trudy into dangerous compromises with the Japanese. Interwoven with this story is that of Claire Pendleton, who comes to Hong Kong ten years later as a newlywed and is hired as piano teacher to the daughter of the wealthy Chen family. Beguiled by the expatriate social life, Claire meets Will, now the driver for her employers. Their affair leads to the revelation of a series of shocking lies and betrayals that link past and present and illumine both worlds.
“A rare and exquisite story…Transports you out of time, out of place, into a world you can feel on your very skin.” -Elizabeth Gilbert
In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, Janice Y.K. Lee’s debut novel is a tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong. In 1942, Englishman Will Truesdale falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong to work as a piano teacher and also begins a fateful affair. As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine, impossible choices emerge-between love and safety, courage and survival, the present, and above all, the past.
Ready to embrace the scents, sounds and smells of the Far East? Grab one of these stories and prepare to be an armchair traveler!
About Julia Justiss
Real, intense, passionate historical romance
After twelve years as a vagabond Navy wife, an adventure that took her from Virginia Beach, VA, to Monterrey, CA, to Tunis, Tunisia to Oslo, Norway and back, Julia Justiss followed her husband to his family’s East Texas homeland. On a hill above a pond with a view of pasture land, they built an English Georgian-style home. Sitting at her desk there, if she ignores the summer heat, she can almost imagine herself in Jane Austen’s Regency England.
In between teaching high school French and making jaunts to visit her three children (a Seabee in Gulfport, MS, a clothing buyer in Houston and a mechanical engineer in Austin, TX) she pursues her first love—writing historical fiction.
She would rather burn in his presence than pine in his absence
Faith Wellingford Evers, Duchess of Ashedon, is tired of society’s endless gossiping about her failings and her late husband’s infidelities. Seeking escape one night, she’s attacked by ruffians, but is saved by an unlikely figure from her past!
Having risen from penniless orphan to Member of Parliament, David Tanner Smith is no longer the quiet boy Faith once knew. With the first spine-tingling kiss, their old friendship is transformed. And in its place is an explosive mix of illicit encounters and forbidden desire…
Romance Historical [Harlequin Historical Romance, On Sale: August 23, 2016, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9780373298969 / eISBN: 9781488004339]