From Publishers Weekly
Set in eighth century China during the T'ang dynasty, this massive historical novel quickly captures the imagination while its accuracy of detail rewards
readers interested in the period. In the glittering court of Emperor Minghuang, the death of the young crown prince sets off whispers of murder. On the heels of this tragedy, Minghuang is forced to banish his beloved empress for the crime of dabbling in witchcraft.
While the emperor slips into a terrible depression, his sly, deceitful chief minister gathers power. Kao Li-Shih, the sharp-witted chief eunuch, reawakens Minghuang by sending him the beauteous Precious Consort, but love only causes China's ruler to further
neglect his duties. Precious Consort's sisters, the Yangs, are a delicious parody of the three graces as they glide through the palace with their bitchy, amusing chatter hiding swift intelligence. As a spirit of decadence takes hold in the court, the Yangs
mistakenly champion the barbarian general An Lu-Shan, a laughing trickster who eventually moves to crush the T'ang dynasty despite all that Kao Li-Shih does to stop him. Vivid characters and alluring descriptions make this first novel by a gifted team a triumphant
mix of fact and fiction.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From the San Jose Mercury-News, Sunday Arts and Books, Feb. 5. 1989:
THE COURT OF THE LION--goes SHOGUN one better
Intrigue in ancient China
by Mark Johnson
In 1975, James Clavell's "SHOGUN" popularized
Asia as a setting for a popular novel. Novelists have since tilled those fields with great enthusiasm and mixed success.
THE COURT OF THE LION: A Novel of the T'ang Dynasty by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri is in the tradition of
"SHOGUN" in several ways. Although it is about 8th-century China, not 17th-century Japan, it shares that novel's huge canvas and heavenly--if you liked it--length. It is also about struggles for power in a court that was famous long ago and far
Let me lay my cards on the table, though: THE COURT OF THE LION is the better novel. It is more successful in balancing its great events and personal stories, more tautly plotted, richer in character, and simply more
It also cuts across the grain of the current popular novel. Where SHOGUN gave us the action through the eyes of a lusty English hero, there are no Occidentals in THE COURT OF THE LION, and the hero, if he may be called such,
is a eunuch. Many readers will find compelling characters here, but few will be taking the easy paths of ethnic and sexual affinity.
In the year 738, the emperor of China is the learned and kindhearted T'ang Minghuang, under whom the
nation has prospered. Minghuang is unhinged, however, by tragedies:
His eldest son, Crown Prince Ying, dies, an apparent suicide; and he is compelled to banish his beloved empress for using Taoist witchcracft in an attempt to conceive a child.
Empress Wang, dishonored, kills herself. Minghuang descends into despair and lethargy, leaving his governance to the bureaucrats.
These events are not accidents. Kao Li-shih, chief court eunuch and confidant to the emperor,
learns that the deaths were cunningly engineered by the empire's chief minister, Li Lin-fu, who now is virtual ruler of China. Li is an adversary of unmatchable depth and subtlety, and he's even crueler than tthat. Kao Li-shih has to bring the emperor
back to his senses or all will be lost.
To this end, Kao chooses a woman, the exquisite Yang Kuei-fei. With Kao's connivance, she seduces the emperor, and Minghuang again has reason to live.
But the gambit works all
too well. Minghuang is drunk with love. Yang, his new Precious Consort, brings her pleasure-loving sisters and cousin to the court, which swirls with unchecked gaiety and licentiousness--as the grip of Li Lin-fu imperceptibly tightens.
In their quest for novelty, the Yang sisters bring to the court General An Lu-shan, barbarian-born leader of a Chinese border army. An Lu-shan, a formidable warrior, amuses the court by playing the buffoon, dressing his 400-odd pounds in women's clothing
or baby's diapers and drinking and carousing with the emperor through the night.
As his familiarity with the emperor grows, so does his power. He
is, however, not the teddy bear he seems. He is a killer. He is ambitious. And he has the army. He does not however, have Li Lin-fu, who is not amused.
Precious Consort's cousin, Yang Kuo-chung, is also a vexation to the chief minister. Belying his playboy image, he has obtained directly from the emperor a series of key posts that Li Lin-fu had regarded as his own to bestow. Now
he is interfering with Li's plans for Chinese expansion and conquest in the North. And he appears to be entirely too close to the emperor's meddlesome euncuh, Kao Li-shih.
So who is really conspiring with whom? Is the
fawning An Lu-shan more dangerous to the emperor or to Li Lin-fu? Is Li the master or the creature of his own designs? As he nears death from tuberculosis, what will happen to his plans, and who will succeed him?
Will the consuming
love of the Precious Consort be Minghuang's salvation, or his destruction? And can Kao Li-shih, the emperor's lifelong friend as well as his employee, use his own skills and talents of the court eunuchs' small but fearsome Flying Dragon Elite to keep the empire
All of this, and much more, is worked out in a novel that catches much of the vastness and variety of China, from the barren, storm-swept plains of the North to the bustling capital of Ch'ang An to the seductive imperial hot-springs
and pleasure gardens.
The story is told with much attention to history, poetry, the lore of Confucianism and Taoism, and the intricate relationship of the eternal yin and yang. For all its complexity, it is remarkably easy--even irresistible--to