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. – Goodreads
Political intrigue, prophecies, history, ruthless killings…this is like Game of Thrones, ancient China style.
I was immediately drawn into this book and had a hard time putting it down. I really enjoyed Mei as a main character — she was strong, determined and focused on her goal (even if that was winning over an old dude who was possibly crazy, enjoyed hurting people and couldn’t keep it up). She’s not the only determined one — plenty of other girls are also determined, and will stop at nothing to get ahead of the others. Backstabbing galore!
I loved the worldbuilding in this — it was easy to picture the characters, the palace, the attire. Randel’s writing flows well and I was definitely invested in the characters, who were also constructed well.
I really enjoyed the romance aspect of this book — it wasn’t the overarching theme, and it was subtle — however, it was heartbreaking to watch Mei pursue a violent, terrible man in order to rise through the ranks while being completely in love with Pheasant, a kind-hearted prince who stood no chance of becoming Emperor.
The book isn’t for the faint of heart — there is plenty of blood, gore and violence, including a maid being trampled by horses, a flutist being killed by his forbidden, someone getting kicked in the face by a horse, someone getting beaten to death, etc. Very vivid imagery on those passages.
Overall, I rated this a 4/5 — I wasn’t so in love with it that I will be picking up the second installment, but it was a very enjoyable and intriguing read.