Edward Patterson takes the reader deep into ancient China, during the Sung dynasty, when the Emperor was considered the "Son of Heaven" and vast armies trembled at his every whim. Out of this rich history comes the riveting journey of one man, Li K'ai-men, that begins at his graduation from an academy where he studied under a venerable master, to his rein over a province ruined by the previous corrupt administrators, to his appointment as Grand Tutor to the ninth son of the Emperor in the capital city of K'ai-feng. When warring hoards from the north threaten the safety of the realm, Li K'ai-men must use his sharp intelligence and a bit of magic to take extraordinary measures to save his life, his family, and liege lord. Li K'ai-men's journey, which includes a rather touching relationship with his male lover, Fu Lin-t'o, is told through the eyes of K'u Ko-ling, Li K'ai-men's rather clownish manservant who was the son of a cowcumber farmer.
Edward Patterson stretches his considerable talents in this daring novel that mixes history with fantasy. This story is a vivid, imaginative, and often humorous romp through a pivotal point in Chinese history. It has surprising power, with images that grab hold of you and don't let go. In the midst of this fanciful tale, Patterson creates a heartwarming gay love story. The love interest is not the main plot, however, but rather a tantalizing spice spread over the plot.
The author uses a technique that I have seen only once before. The narrator starts and finishes each chapter with his 1st person point of view, but the bulk of the story is told in 3rd person. I found these POV switches to be seamless, and greatly added to developing the depths of the main characters. This is a character driven story, and Patterson skillfully allows us see these characters to their core.
I had only two problems with this story. The first problem was that because there were a host of minor characters, and the Chinese names were somewhat confusing, I had some trouble telling them apart. The second issue was that this is the first novel in a series, which means that it sets the stage for much more story to come. I was left with a feeling of incompleteness, and somewhat miffed that I must wait for another installment or two to finish the story.
The plot is complex, which combines with his consummate skill at crafting prose and his well-researched details to keep the reader fully engaged until the last page. I would recommend this read to anyone who enjoys multifaceted characters, humor, and a well-crafted story.