To honour the memory of his dead father, Shen Tai labours for two years in the ancient haunted battlefield at Kuala Nor, surrounded only by the ghosts of the dead, burying the skeletons (without discrimination) to set their souls to rest. He is in the far reaches of the nation of Kitai, and on the borders of the Tagurans, Kitai’s rivals. Both the Kitai and Tagurans bring him provisions as a mark of respect, but it is the Kitai princess married to the Taguran ruler, who sends him two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, a gift beyond belief. One would have made him fabulously rich, ten would have been a gift worthy of the Emperor (Son of Heaven) himself, but the number he has received are, apparently, as good as a death sentence.
Of course, almost immediately, there are attempts on Shen Tai’s life, and the story evolves from this point onwards into an epic where Shen Tai makes his way back to the capital at Xinan, protected by a female Kanlin warrior, and later joined by the famous poet Sima Zian. He must also get back into the political scene, dealing with the Emperor’s Precious Consort, his First Minister and the Heir, in addition to Roshan (a play on the historical An Lu Shan), a military governor with ambitions of his own.
There is also a side story of Shen Tai’s sister Shen Li-Mei, and her wolf-protector Meshag; and another vein leads to Shen Tai’s one-time lover, the courtesan Spring Rain, now the First Minister’s concubine, who feeds Shen Tai with information.
I will say at this point, that this book, to me, is more historical fiction than fantasy. The entire story is set in the Tang period of Chinese history. Fictionalised, yes, but still recognisable. And it reads like a dramatic film script – I can see the entire cast of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon playing the parts in this book.
It was an interesting read, but not as gripping as Tigana was. In fact, as fantasy goes, it was entirely disappointing. Worth a read thought, because it is beautifully and sensitively written, but read it as a historical novel, setting aside the fantasy tag, and you will understand its true worth.
A book designer, Arati has always enjoyed books and the world of imagination that they open up. She is extremely accident-prone, due entirely to absent-mindedness caused by thinking about books and their contents, instead of paying attention to what she's actually supposed to be doing. She reads multiple books simultaneously, and her choices range from cookbooks and design manuals to fantasy, crime and Regency romances.
She lives and works in London, UK and sells her art on paper and textiles at Etsy