The two male characters driving the conflict, the emperor and his prime minister, would have been great as unapologetic villains rather than "romantic (anti) heroes". In a better novel, Prime Minister Lou could have been a hard-nosed Machiavellian character— a "power is my only mistress" Napoleon or Julius Caesar — whose greed for power is realistically consistent. This is a dude who supposedly grew up an orphan in the Crown Prince's household, a lowly foot-stool of a servant who claws his way into power by feverishly studying for the civil service examinations and becoming the top-scorer in his year; his political rise is then paved by the murder of his former master, followed by another murder and double-crossing of the dowager empress, his former conspirator, to shut her up and cover his tracks. His eventual conflict with the sitting emperor (who had replaced his dead brother by faking virtuousness) is probably modeled after prime minister Sima Yi's power struggle against the emperors of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period, an instance of weakened imperial authority flailing to reconsolidate power from unchecked ministers. But this is where historical associations stop and poor writing begins.
The novel relies heavily on "tell, not show" rather than show, not tell. The narrative repeatedly insists Prime Minister Lou is a political genius, but all his actual maneuvers are shortsighted, if not downright stupid. The historic Sima Yi had only moved to openly challenge the emperor after decades—decades!—of hard work had won him complete control of the army and state. Sima had clarity of vision and a concrete objective of seizing the throne; his son and grandson continued his work and eventually toppled the dynasty to establish a new regime. But in the novel, Lou Che has no hold over the military, which is firmly controlled by generals wholeheartedly loyal to the Emperor. Lou's power rests in the civil bureaucracy, where he has peppered the Six Ministries with allies and corrupt cronies. Based on this bit of clout, he decides to show his claws and openly challenge the Emperor. I mean, how stupid is this guy? Right after becoming prime minister, he rapidly accrues so much power, in so transparent a manner, that no sane ruler would not consider him a threat. Lou basically puts himself in a do-or-die position where the emperor cannot possibly tolerate him, and he has no choice but to rebel. But again, he's a young minister relatively new to his post, with no control of the army and no legitimate birthright to actually replace the emperor. Unable to raise the forces for a military coup, the best he can muster is rally the emperor's beleaguered brother, Prince Duan, and a rival vassal king along the southern border to force the capital into a political deadlock. When the emperor starts murdering and removing his government cronies one by one, he's backed into an even tighter corner. Oh, and did I mention he had greased his new alliance with Prince Duan by kidnapping and prostituting his love-interest from youth as a token offering? I'll wait right here while you shudder.
A half-way decent novelist would have had Gui Wan, the "heroine", leave Lou Che after learning he had taken Yao Ying and pimped her out to Prince Duan. After all, throughout the novel, Gui Wan and Yao Ying are presented as mirror images: both are equally beautiful, both drew the same divination stick, both were pursued by the emperor, and both love the same man. If Lou has the capacity to betray and sell one, who is to say he will never do the same to the other? Any woman with a shred of insight and self-preserving dignity should know that, essentially, you can't change a zebra's stripes; that a bad man cannot be permanently "reformed" through romance. That and beauty is fleeting: Gui Wan enjoys the blush of youth at 19; Lou is mesmerized and professes his love; but what happens when she is 30, 40, 50? If Yao Ying's misfortune wasn't enough, then Lou Che ordering his men to kill Lin Yiran should have been a final straw. And if that isn't enough, realizing Lou's deadlock with the emperor had given a third-party the opportunity to orchestrate General Lin's impending death should have been the final nail on the coffin. Instead of having Lou Che exile Gui Wan to the northern frontier (again, how stupid is this guy? Why would you send your supposedly precious wife to the frontier, where war is threatening to break, and where you hold no influence, instead of to the safer south, where your power base is concentrated??) while he "dukes it out" with the emperor, a better story would allow the girl some agency (and a sense of responsibility!) by her choosing to leave Lou, no matter how difficult, and to either escape the deadly capital, or travel north to warn General Lin of the treacherous Shu clan. And then, during that bitterly cold winter, she succumbs to suffering and frostbite, and her beauty is ruined (because, beyond death and politics, the giant unanswered question throughout is this: without peerless beauty, would any of these men love her half as much?). Lou Che, finding her no longer beautiful, stops his pursuit and lets her go, remaining true to his roots as an ambitious power-broker. General Lin survives the ambush and fends off the Nu tribe; the emperor consolidates power in the capital. Lou Che, ever the glib politician, escapes to the south, where he joins Prince Duan as rivals at the vassal king's court. The story ends with Gui Wan running an inn with San Niang during peacetime and tending her own garden, closing the narrative with a single smile. (Or, if you need a more romantic ending, she settles down with General Lin far away from the capital, and the story ends with him teaching their children martial arts in their humble yard).
But of course the above is just wishful thinking. The novel's actual plot makes me furious because, in an attempt to infuse the heroine's romance with histrionic drama, the one and only decent character in the entire story is killed off as a plot device. Poor General Lin was barely a character, an underdeveloped "tsundere" cliche who shows up in the story a handful of times. But the author inadvertently made him the only moral center of the story, when, during a conversation with Gui Wan, he wisely points out that power struggles lead to political unrest, and political unrest leads to suffering for the common people. The question then becomes one of should rather than could: a crouching tiger could paw after power; but whether he should do so is a different question. While everyone else is busy sidelining the real responsibilities of governance in favor of backstabbing and political intrigue, Lin Rui En is the one person who actually does his job, knowing full well he can't forsake the defense of the country. But of course he gets killed because the emperor and his prime minister are locked in a government shutdown, and an outside third party uses this opening to incite a prolonged war as an entry into power. Thanks to the irresponsible, callous incompetence of the emperor and Lou, the country loses their best general, gets locked into a long costly war, countless innocent people die, and the drained emperor dies early, leaving a weak empress with a toddler heir, which, if the collapse of the Han dynasty is any indication, is always the recipe for further disaster.
This is why I'm mad. My disgust has nothing to do with "shipping". General Lin was so underdeveloped as a character that he was never a credible love interest. But within the fictional cosmology of the novel, he was the people's last great hope, a beloved and respected defender against encroaching dangers, and a stabilizing counterweight against Lou Che and the Emperor. His death, paired with the long war and subsequent political unrest, means the people are thrown naked into senseless conflict. It's this senselessness that's so perverse— that two unworthy men should have the power to unravel an entire country. It's like Operation Barbarossa and the Siege of Leningrad; even without getting into the general morality of WWII, so much senseless suffering could have been avoided if Hitler and Stalin listened to their military advisors and fought more efficient battles, but instead both dictators dragged their civilians through blood and bone thanks to incompetent decision making. The mere thought fills one with anger and contempt.
One year before his death, General Lin had tried to gently persuade Gui Wan to do something about the Emperor and Lou Che's power struggle, explaining that her influence could save the lives of many. But what does Gui Wan do? Sleep with Lou Che a few times, tries to "distract" and "soften" his ambitious with romance. When that doesn't work, she stops trying altogether, literally taking naps and sitting around while turning a blind eye to Lou Che's scheming. Because of loooove.
I admire forthright narratives of how dynasties end, why authority collapses, how power is won and lost, and how ordinary men become corrupt. But a romance??? Get outta here! Lou Che may be "handsome", but he is a slimy bastard and there's nothing romantic about his actions. The "heroine" is essentially an empty vessel with a few idealistic traits (beautiful, charming, composed, intelligent) in whom the author/readers can project themselves. She becomes utterly passive and inert during the last stretch of the novel, doing nothing and simply waiting for Lou Che to shape their fates. Events and consequences are mostly shaped for her by men in the novel. The story had opened with her search for purpose, identity, and a true home. By the end, she has neither identity nor home.