In a word, 'perfect'. I fell in love with the Cooney/Altieri team with their first novel, "Court of the Lion". I never would have thought anything could surpass that novel, but "Deception" proved me wrong. "Deception" is set during the tumultuous T'ang Dynasty period of China. Though not exactly a 'prequel', the plot line of "Deception" does precede events in "Court of the Lion". "Deception" recounts the shocking and at times, disturbing, rise of Wu Tse-tien, the only female ever to be declared Emperor of China. In a time rife with superstition, T'ang China was the perfect scenario for religious charlatans to infiltrate the highest positions of power, nearly tearing apart a Dynasty and ages-old Confucian stability. As the corruption and Wu's lust for power grows, manipulation, murder and fear become the order of the day.
Enter Dee Jen-chieh- as Cooney puts it, a 'T'ang answer to Sherlock Holmes'. An unwavering devotee to truth and rationality, the young assistant magistrate soon finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the tangled web of corruption cast over the empire he loves so much. What begins as a simple investigation into a case of a man wrongfully executed for murder leads Dee on a quest for the truth that unnervingly appears to point at the heart of the T'ang, now rotting from within.
As the plot progresses, it becomes clear just how much Cooney has improved as a writer. The writing style is incredible and the final chapters will have your hair on end. Plot is layered upon plot, each skillfully peeled away at just the right time. So many different lives and events are tied together in a masterful buildup to an unforgettable climax, when the truth is finally revealed. Every character and every event, from start to finish, has purpose contributing to the ending. Nothing is unimportant. Everything ties together in the end, in similar fashion to 'Pulp Fiction' and it is every bit as artfully done as in that movie.
What I love most about Cooney's novels are both the descriptive style and character development. You'll love some, hate others, and most likely find your feelings towards some changing over the course of the book, but they seem very, very 'real'. There is Dee, juggling work and his own relentlessly insatiable curiousity with nagging wives and unfilial sons...there is Empress Wu, benevolence and malevolence all in one, a tigress and a lamb, a mother and a murderess...and one of my favorites, the arrogant monk Hsueh Huai-i, characterized by his mannerisms and a tendency to add a '...hm?' after nearly everything he says. And so many more...
Despite being heavily influenced by historical fact, it is important that the reader realize that "Deception" is a work of historical fiction. Empress Wu was a real person and many of the things she did, both good and bad, actually did happen. Of course some liberties were taken and deviations from truth made, but what came of it was a great novel.
"Deception" has drawn some criticism, accused of being anti-Buddhist. This is not the case in the book. It is actually the actions of charlatans maligning the peaceful faith for their own ends. In any religion, their will be corruption; in the time of the T'ang, there were 'dark' Buddhists and their were true practitioners of the faith. Both appear in "Deception". Dee explores the darker sides of both religion and human nature, providing a chilling look at just how powerful an influence religion combined with the fallibility of superstitious human beings can be.
At a hefty 627 pages, 'Deception' could hardly be considered 'too short'. But once it gets underway, the plot moves so fast and the characters are so engaging that the Cooney/Altieri-created T'ang China is a world you won't want to leave.
This novel is nothing short of a masterpiece, and is easily one of the best books I have ever read.