shan sashan sashan sa
shan sa

Such originality, lyricism, uncanny characters, and painstaking historic reconstruction of court intrigue . Empress is a masterpiece.

Maurice Druon, l'Academie Francaise, author of "The Accursed Kings"

As a story, Empress shocks and mesmerizes; as a piece of writing, it flows with undiluted poetry."

Michelle Lovric, author of  "The Floating Book  and The Remedy"



Dazzling. The reader hears the horses neighing during the imperialist raids, 

inhales the intoxicating scent of the royal  apartments, and visits a vast land of 

ever-changing scenery.

                                            Paris Match, France



Ambitious and intriguing... a sprawling fresco of blossoming metaphors.

                                             Elle, France


Luxurious and intelligent... part pageant, part politics as ballet; a  lavish 

portrayal of life in early civilized China.

                                             Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio, U.S.A


In sharp contrast to her tightly focused previous novel (The Girl Who Played Go, 2003), Shan Sa, the China-born French novelist and painter, has written a sweeping panoramic historical novel about the seventh century's Tang dynasty and China's only woman emperor. When a self-made timber merchant who has risen into minor nobility dies, he leaves his well-born wife and daughters at his crude family's mercy until a visiting magistrate singles out the middle daughter, Heaven Light, for her intelligence. At 12, Heaven Light is summoned to the Imperial City to be one of 10,000 women who serve the Emperor. One of the Emperor's wives sexually initiates Heaven Light (a not-uncommon practice within this Inner City, where no men are allowed) while her athletic skills attract the attention of the Emperor, whose secretary she becomes. She helps his young son, sweet-natured but uncertain Little Phoenix, become heir, but because she served his father, court rules say she cannot be Little Phoenix's lover, let alone wife. Instead, she enters a monastery. Three years later, Little Phoenix impregnates her, with a son no less, so she can return to court as an official concubine. Intrigue follows intrigue. By age 30, Heaven Light has become Empress Wu. Since her husband lacks interest in government, the Empress becomes de facto ruler, consolidating power by whatever means necessary, convinced that she acts for the nation's good. When Little Phoenix dies, she's 52. Her oldest son has died; another has been banished for attempting a coup against his father; and the third happily turns power over to his mother. She becomes Supreme Empress, ruling with an iron hand, but also introducing reforms. Deified by the people as Eternal Empress August Sovereign Divinity, at the end of her long life she acknowledges to herself that she has been "a usurper" who forged the divine messages that legitimized her power. A compelling read and surprisingly easy to follow, given its exotic complexity.




This engrossing historical novel takes readers on a journey to seventh-century China and the reign of its first and only female ruler: Empress Wu, who emerged in the Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age. Named Heaven Light at birth, this merchant's daughter is singled out for her beauty and intelligence and made one of the emperor's 10,000 wives -- and so begins her unusual and fascinating rise to power. Reading groups will find this a perfect inspiration for the discussion of how unique women have shaped history.



A Reader's Review

Heavenlight has gone! The approach of her death, inevitable and foretold, brings an ache to her companion - you, the reader. This is the art of great compositions of prose; to marry you to the central, catalytic character. In Heavenlight, more so, we are active players as her story unfolds through her eyes, not a dispassionate Third Person objectively observing.

It is achievement enough to recreate a past age so it is tangible, smellable, real. To do this totally without recourse to other characters' view points is evidence of a subtle, large and furious talent. This is what you have done, almost uniquely.

Heavenlight is, of course, not the Empress Wu, any more than is King Arthur in "Morte d' Arthur" or Macbeth in Shakespeare's play. But she is believable and projects the complexities of a woman able to strive and triumph over men in a man's world. She is a formidable, often unsympathetic, and driven person, possessing traits that confuse, contradict and, often, disappoint. Her utter ruthless treatment of all, even those of her family, who threaten her position and steel self-belief that she alone can build the prosperity of her Empire, is startling and always jolting. A voracious, ambiguous sexuality could turn a conventional reader hostile. But such is the weaving of her character, the intermingling and unbending attention to the layering of historical fact and fictional, but believable, events which drive behavior, that all Heavenlight's qualities, admirable or questionable, merge in your hands to present a consistent, authentic and seductive person – one we are glad we become companion to.

I was drawn on and on, dazzled by avalanches of gorgeous, pertinent detail, enticed by dense, sensuous passages of life in the palaces and courts, all irreducibly necessary to take me to the Eighth Century as if it were last week.

China ceased to be a glistening, porcelain tableau – a bald and distantly viewed curiosity, remote and lacking in warmth of historical veracity. Your luscious, dense and clamouring descriptive powers swept all that aside. I cannot imagine who else could have linked the interlocking torrents of life so that, to the reader, the reason that China is the majestic, diverse and immutable presence in the world which it is, becomes plain and lucid through your words.

Above all, though, we are swept in and on and up, with Heavenlight, through obscurity, recognition, exile, resurrection, triumph and final, achingly unbearable, departure.

"Empress", even with many distractions and diversions, drew me back and back; your lyric, endlessly inventive words drew me back – and, never bored, this Yangtze of prose carried me on Heavenlight's journey, a devoted and passionate acolyte to her struggle and her grandeur.

Owen E - January 2008
shan sa