This brutal, magnificent historical novel takes place in central China (sort of around Wuhan, if my correlation between the map in the book and today’s maps is correct), when the Han Red Turban Rebellion was fighting against the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1345-1356). There is very little fantasy, except that some of the characters with the courage to maintain their destined paths can see ghosts and sometimes make themselves glow with the light of Heaven. Neither of these talents is particularly useful–though it seems to be necessary to glow in order to become Emperor, that ability does not guarantee survival. But there is plenty of sweeping war, calculated murder, and exquisite betrayal.
At the same time, it is an insightful novel of self-discovery, an exploration of gender and identity, and a critique of the idea of destiny. A peasant woman who calls herself by her brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, with a combination of skill and luck, becomes a leader in the Red Turban Rebellion. In order to rise in power, and claim the destiny of “greatness” her brother refused by dying, she must deny both gender and self. The brilliant general leading the war against the Rebellion, Ouyang, is an enslaved eunuch from a disgraced and murdered family. He lives despite the shame of his lost masculinity, feeling himself worthy of nothing except to carry out revenge. They both adhere to their misguided destinies regardless of the cost to themselves or those around them.
However, both the general who is not quite a man and the peasant risen to lead a rebel army, who is not entirely a woman, seem to want the same thing: the overthrow of the Yuan emperor in far-off Khanbaliq (near modern Beijing). Many of the characters in the book are actual historic figures, including Zhu who later renames herself Yuanzhang. Since the Yuan dynasty actually was overthrown by the Red Turban Army led by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368, presumably that desire will be granted. This will have to happen in our imaginations unless, of course, there is a second book.