Can we call this historical fiction? The names of places and people are changed, and I’m sure many other details are changed, but this is mainly a retelling of the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty. The imperial court is a hotbed of intrigue — the Emperor occupies his time in expanding his marvelous garden, the Genyue, in the capital Hanjin. He’s generally ignorant of the day-to-day goings-on in the Empire, which is how his advisers like it. Competing factions jockey for control of the Emperor’s favor. When a member of one group is installed as prime minister, the other group is sent into exile. Then vice versa when power flips.
Everyone at the court is very wary of a powerful military. Past dynasties have usually been overthrown by ambitious military commanders, so the court tries to keep the generals incompetent and the army weak. This all generally works out ok … at least in times of peace.
When the Kitan Empire hears of war amongst the northern steppe people, some smell an opportunity for advantage. The loss of the Fourteen Provinces to the barbarian Xiaolu a generation ago still stings. Now that the Xiaolu are facing their rebellious vassal, the Altai, one faction plans an alliance aimed at recovering the lost territory and thus bringing further imperial favor (which is what really matters). The Altai are offending at the Kitans’ arrogance, but warily accept on the condition that the Kitan army take the Xiaolu Southern Capital. When they fail miserably, yet still Kitan officials demand the Fourteen Provinces, the Altai decide to attack Kitai, too. Not a good idea to piss off a nation of horse warriors accustomed to drinking blood from their enemies’ skulls. Especially when your army is worthless.
Kitan territory rapidly falls beneath the mighty Altai. Fortunately, there is one savior – Ren Daiyan, former marsh outlaw, a military genius, and a believer in a personal destiny to defend the dynasty and win back the lost provinces. His army is the only one to stand up to the Altai. He manages to rescue a single son of the Emperor when all the rest are captured by the Altai during the fall of Hanjin. Then he begins to fight back, pushing them north. Meanwhile, the rescued son tries to regroup the nation by setting up court in the south. After a year of victories, Ren has the Altai on the run and is just about to retake Hanjin and continue pushing onward to the Lost Fourteen, but the new southern emperor sends urgent word to stop. A peace treaty has been agreed on. Ren is incredulous — Kitai is ceding the northern half of the country to the Altai.
Ren’s love for his country threatens to tear him apart. On the one hand, he is so close to driving out the invaders and retaking long lost territory. But on the other hand, he has received a direct order from his emperor to stand down. He wants to press on, but that would be rebellious — he briefly considers starting his own dynasty, with Ren as emperor. But in the end he yields, and loyally submits. Part of his reasoning is that if he took power, he would further confirm the court’s stereotypical wariness of ambitious (ie competent) generals that has put, and would continue to put, the army and nation at the mercy of outside forces.
This part gets me angry — Ren was the savior of Kitai, but what is his reward? Prison. Turns out that there was a secret deal behind the peace treaty . . . If Ren had pressed on and crushed the Altai, then he would have undoubtedly recovered the captured Emperor and others in the imperial family … others ahead of the new Southern emperor in the line of succession. The new emperor (and his advisers) would surely be deposed and likely executed for prematurely snatching the reins. The Altai agree to end the war, and keep the imperial family hostage for the rest of their days, thereby keeping the new emperor safely in power. Along with gaining a good chunk of territory, the Altai also demand that Ren, who they consider to be the spoiler of their total victory, is executed. Luckily, a sympathetic prime minister allows Ren to escape, commanding him to go far away and live an anonymous life. Well, he actually gives him the choice of that or drinking poisoned wine; the book is ambiguous about what choice Ren makes. But his love interest is known to have traveled far to the west after all this — probably to be with Ren.
I was surprised at how much of the book was based on actual events. The barbarian invasion, fall of the capital, splitting of the country in two, the captured emperor, the loyal general commanded to turn back — truth is stranger than fiction. Here’s a cheat sheet: