In the year 738, the T’ang restored, rational Confucianism predominating and the legitimate line of succession in place after the depredations of the Empress Wu, it is a time of great
expansion, peace and artistry. The Emperor is a ruler of extraordinary humanity, a musician and a painter, his justice and compassion legendary. But an ambitious woman, a minor court consort, inspired by tiny characters painted on the petals of silk flowers
delivered to her chambers which suggest to her that she has a greater destiny to fulfill, makes a bold play. The favored crown prince is murdered and the current Empress framed for the dire offense of sorcery. But the conniving woman is no Wu Tse-tien: weak
and vacillating, she goes quite mad in her guilt, her scheme collapsing into ignominy and failure.
But not for naught! Chief Minister Li Lin-fu, a man for whom the term “Machiavellian” is too mild, himself a great
admirer of the Iron Empress, has been watching with growing trepidation the various threats to the security of the Empire by invaders in the ragged far northern territories. Li Lin-fu is content to let the artistic, compassionate emperor serve as a figurehead,
but knows that the hard work of realpolitik governance rests with him. Witnessing the Emperor’s descent into apathy and grief in the wake of the crown prince’s murder, Li Lin-fu knows an opportunity when he sees one, and steps into the breach.
He brings to court from the far north an up-and-coming former slave whose daring military exploits have earned him rank and reputation. An Lu-shan is a rough fellow, huge, bearded, uncouth and uneducated, but Li Lin-fu intends to gain control of him and use
him to secure the northern territories. But well we know what can happen with even the best-laid plans…
The grandeur, mystery, eroticism, horror, sensuality, decadence and vast scope of this tale unfold in settings
as far flung as the Imperial court, the shimmering, haunted Pure Flower Hot Springs pleasure resort, the bleak, windswept, desolate north, the diseased, fever-infested prison island of Hainan, and finally, the distant piney mountains of far western Szechuan.
Barbarians frolic with fine court ladies, betrayals great and small are hatched, eunuchs, poets, courtesans and warriors collude, and weaving in and out around the characters and events from beginning to end is a “shape-changing,” highly-sexed
witch (or, if readers prefer, a crazy old woman), who represents the legendary immortal of Taoist lore. No story of the T'ang would be complete without this preternatural element, which gives the tale a richly fraught, uncanny extra dimension and removes it
far from the ordinary adventure-saga.