Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review - "Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart" by John Guy

I’ve given this book 5 full stars. It took me an inordinate amount of time to finish it due to the humongous cast of characters and the tangled relationships that the Tudor and Stuart family trees exhibit. Now that the reading is done, I can say that I’m truly impressed by this luminous, expertly researched biography of the gracious, witty, brave and ill-fated Scottish Queen, from whom every subsequent British ruler has been descended.

Mary Stuart was crowned Queen of Scotland when she was less than a year old. As the only daughter of James V, granddaughter of Margaret Tudor and great-granddaughter of Henry VII of England, she had a rightful claim to the English throne.

At the age of six, under the auspices of Mary’s powerful maternal uncles at the French court, the de Guises, she was sent to France to be betrothed to the dauphin Francis. They were married when Mary was fifteen (in 1558). In 1559, Henry II of France died and the dauphin was crowned Francis II. A year later, Mary’s mother, who was ruling Scotland as sole regent for the absent Queen, died. Six months thereafter, Mary’s husband, King Francis II, also died. The ambitious de Guises sent eighteen-year-old Mary back to Scotland, envisioning a unified claim to the thrones of Scotland, France and England. It was there and then that her nightmare began.

On the one hand, Mary was immediately plunged into a factional melee of violent Scottish tribal politics, which were often tinged with religious sectarianism and always motivated by the nobles’ self-interests. On the other hand, Elizabeth I of England did her best to clamp down on Mary (one of her demands was so draconian as to dictate whom Mary could marry), as she was fearful that Mary might usurp her throne (her fear being constantly magnified by her secretary William Cecil).

In her home turf, Mary found herself surrounded by treacherous, vicious and depraved courtiers, including her sly and duplicitous half-brother James Stuart (Earl of Moray). Her de Guise relations used and abandoned her as situations warranted and were hardly a source of support. Unfortunate for Mary, her trusting and big-hearted nature would often land her in a perilous position. Her predicament was further exacerbated by constant threat of religious war all over Europe (Catholicism vs. Protestantism). As witty and tenacious as she was, the odds were always stacked against her. Despite all, Mary still strove to preserve her reign as the Scottish Queen and to claim her legitimate right to be Elizabeth’s successor.

The last third of the book unfolds like a thriller/mystery novel, as Mary tried to eke out some breathing space for herself by seeking political marriage. She first wedded Lord Darnley, an English royal whose maternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, and who would thus strengthen Mary’s claim to the English throne. Then when self-serving and deceitful Darnley was murdered, she married Lord Bothwell, a powerful and ruffian Scottish lord, who also betrayed her trust in times of need. The melodrama of her life culminated in 1568 when Mary naively tried to seek protection from Elizabeth but ended up being captured on English soil, where she would be under house arrest for the following eighteen years. In 1586, out of desperation, she fell into the trap that William Cecil had set up and took part in a madcap assassination plot against Elizabeth. She was tried in October 1586 and executed on February 8, 1587.

It is impossible not to feel sympathy for this hapless but good-hearted Queen, whose only flaw was perhaps her deep emotional need to be loved.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Book Cover of My New Historical Epic "The Green Phoenix"

Earnshaw Books will be releasing my new historical epic titled "The Green Phoenix" on September 1, 2017. It is a novelized account of the life of Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born a Mongolian princess who became a consort of the Manchu court, and then the Qing Dynasty's first matriarch. She lived through harrowing threats, endless political crises, personal heartaches and painful losses to lead a shaky Empire out of a dead end to peace and stability. The story is set against a turbulent canvas as the Chinese Ming Dynasty is replaced by the Qing. Xiaozhuang guides her husband, her lover, her son and her grandson - all emperors and supreme leaders of the Qing Empire - to success against the odds.

Advance Praises:

So much of imperial Chinese history is an enigma; a world we, as outsiders, are shut out off. Alice Poon’s novelised life of the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang fictionally pulls back the curtain on Manchu court life and lets us step into a forbidden world.

Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking

Alice Poon has written a masterpiece of Chinese history little known in the West. It's a story of love, betrayal and loyalty, and shows how one woman inspired the reunification of China. For so long the West has fixated on the end of the Qing dynasty, but as Poon beautifully recreates in her book, the real heroine of the Qing is the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang. Never before has this story been told in English, and it's arguably the most important historical novel of early Qing Dynasty China.   

Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife:
 A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

History and Historical Fiction

Historians have attributed the demise of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) to various reasons, the most prominent being: emperors indulging in extravagance and/or self-glory or being pathetically paranoid and/or incompetent, factional feuds between eunuchs and officials in court, endemic corruption in all levels of administration, and the court overtaxing the already desperate underclass of peasants. It took a long period of time (stretching over the reigns of the last three or four emperors) for these factors to foment and become a deadly tumor that set the nation’s body and spirit on an irreversible trend of decay. This internal cancerous growth, in convergence with fateful external factors like the emergence of an ogling neighbor state and the rise of rebellious commoner leaders, ultimately put the Dynasty to rest. Indeed, those internal causes of death sound almost banal, given that they can probably be applied, with adjustments here and there, to any previous dynastic era in China’s long history.

In the case of the Ming Dynasty, one external factor - the “ogling neighbor state” - turned out to be the Manchu Empire, a newly united tribe of cavalry Jurchens under Nurhaci of the Aisin Gioro clan. The origins of the Jurchens could be traced back to the Great Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234), which had persisted in nettling the Southern Song Dynasty after defeating the Liao in Northern China. It was Hong Taiji, one of Nurhaci’s sons, who established the Qing Dynasty in Mukden, just outside the borders of Ming China. But his dream of conquering China proper was not to be realized in his lifetime. Just one year after his death, though, his half-brother Dorgon, Regent to the child Shunzhi Emperor, fulfilled that dream with the uncanny help of a Ming General, Wu Sangui. Yet the fledgling years of Qing were far from stable, and it took the wits and tenacity of one Mongolian woman – Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang - to keep the multi-ethnic Empire from crumbling.

Those are just some basic facts of history at the crucial crossroads where Ming’s end met with Qing’s rise. The study of history can turn people off if it involves only chewing on dry hard facts. But we ought to sing the praises of historians who take great pains to attempt an unbiased and accurate recording of historical facts, if only because our collective future depends on drawing valuable lessons from and avoiding disastrous mistakes of our past, all races included. That said, we must remember that history is often written by the victors, or those who dominate or suppress others (no distinction is made between Western and Eastern history here), and thus we should keep a questioning mind. As well, there is always the element of historians’ own subjective interpretation of facts, so that three different historians may well present three accounts of the same event with quite different slants. All of them valid.

Yet, history is intrinsically made by people and it is always the “actors” of history that make the study interesting or even worthwhile. It should not be surprising then, that some of us love reading historical fiction for the very reason that such fiction focuses on telling the personal stories of those “actors” of history.

The task of weaving historical facts with fictional narratives (in some cases with fictional characters) falls to historical novelists, whose mission is to work creatively with the gaps left by historians, while animating the actors of history with feelings, emotions and thoughts. In general, historical novels are invariably more enticing and less intimidating than dry, non-fiction history, thus more likely to reach a wider audience. If such novels can pique readers’ interest and curiosity and make them want to learn more, then they will have served one great purpose.

I am not a historian, at best only an amateur in Chinese history. But I am passionate about writing historical fiction set in China’s distant past, in which is embedded a colossal untapped reservoir of juicy materials to write good fiction from. The historical fiction genre has long been skewed towards Western history and badly needs diversification into Oriental history. I, for one, would certainly love to see more historical fiction writers jump on this Old China bandwagon.

The above is my humble view.