Our female lead, Nie Wushuang (NWS), is happily married in what she believes to be a love match. After 3 years of marital bliss, suddenly her gentle, handsome, accomplished prime minister husband turns on her almost overnight, kicking her out of their home, aborting their child, and is revealed to have a direct hand in the execution of her whole family as traitorous criminals. Broken physically and emotionally and now a wanted criminal, she runs to escape from being captured. By chance she meets Xiao Fengqing (XFQ), our male lead, who is a prince in a neighboring allied country, and seeks his protection. She essentially agrees to submit her entire self (body and soul), the only thing she has left to give, to his control in exchange for his promise to help her fulfill her bloodthirsty quest for revenge.
Our XFQ is very ambitious and makes it no secret that he wants the throne, which is currently occupied by his older brother, emperor Xiao Fengming (XFM). NWS catches XFM's eye, so XFQ "grooms" her and sends her to XFM's side as his planted agent. XFM takes NWS into the palace to join his imperial harem as a lowly concubine. The story follows NWS' path from the bottom of the food chain to the top, her increasingly torn loyalties and need to pick a side between these two men, while being forever plagued by her tragic past and unending need for revenge.
The male lead, XFQ, and the second male lead, XFM, are both pretty compelling characters.
XFQ is the underdog - hiding his abilities, obediently working under his brother, biding his time in the dark. His ambition is ruthless and selfish. He loves his brother, XFM, who is half a father to him and who saved his life once. But he also hates XFM for "stealing" all that should have been his, hates that XFM can stand upright in the light while he has been pushed into the shadows powerlessly. Towards the heroine, XFM is possessive, forceful and sharp. But his relationship with the heroine is honest - they know each others' true and flawed selves and ultimate motivations. He is willing to help the heroine achieve bloody and selfish revenge. He has his secrets, as does the heroine, but between them there are no barriers (unlike XFM, see below).
XFM is the light - he is magnanimous, a natural ruler, considerate of the people and his kingdom. He is gentle and wise, a shoulder for the heroine to lean on, and endlessly understanding and doting. His gentle and continuous love heals the heroine's broken heart and she falls in love with him despite herself. She and XFM are "together" for most of the novel and he takes up way more screen time than XFQ. The problem is there's always a little distance between them, like an impenetrable veil, because as emperor his priority will always be the people and his kingdom. He keeps his government matters off-limits from the heroine (he doesn't want her to know or interfere) and keeps his empire's wellbeing in mind above the heroine's personal blood thirst (e.g., he offers her ex-husband a position in his kingdom since the ex-husband's talent can be a boon for the country, irregardless of the wrongs he did to the heroine). He's not willing to create a war or speed up a war just because the heroine wills it, and rightfully so IMO. No matter how loving the emperor is to the heroine, this is something she ultimately can't accept. She feels like she is an imposter in the light, when her real place is in the darkness because she can't escape her past and she can't escape the shadow of her original intent when she first entered the palace.
A continuation of what I mentioned in the premise. Okay, so our heroine NWS wants revenge. Our male lead XFQ wants the throne and sends NWS to XFM's side so she can be his spy / inside woman while he plots his way to power. So far so good. I love a good set-up.
Our NWS gets put into the palace. Then, our dear author and male lead seem to have completely forgotten why she was put in there in the first place. In 500 chapters, except for one minor example I can think of in one chapter, she basically does nothing of use to the male lead the whole time. It's really just her trying to survive the schemes of the harem while the male lead somewhat supports her in the background. Things get angsty as NWS starts to fall in love with the dashing, gentle, benevolent and doting emperor XFM and XFQ starts to learn his own heart and regrets sending her into the palace. XFQ needs to keep warning NWS not to betray him for XFM, but really there's no need since even before her feelings kicked in she wasn't of that much help to him anyway.
Other gripes where things didn't make any sense:
1. Qin is the enemy country of Qi, NWS' home country. Qin attacks Qi, and Qi seeks help from Ying (NWS' new country) because Qi and Ying are technically allied countries. When Ying sends backup, NWS' only surviving family member, her older brother, is sent to war as one of the generals. He gets trapped by enemy troops. Since XFQ is also at battle, NWS decides to risk her life to sneak out of the palace to "help" her brother by meeting XFQ - it's a dangerous journey and certain death if it's found out that she's lied to the emperor to be with his brother (implied illicit affair). She hides in XFQ's battle tent for a few days to do nothing but wait nervously for battle news each day. And her one contribution is drawing a map with a path no one else knew about which turns the tide. Girl, is it me or could you have just passed a message?
2. Lots of things just "happen" without being explained. For instance, a consort from Qi commits suicide and XFM suspects it's NWS' doing, since it would trigger war between Qi and Ying. NWS wants Ying to attack Qi, which would lead to the downfall of Qi's emperor who executed her family (hence fulfilling her revenge). XFM accuses NWS of having a hand in the "suicide" and puts her under house arrest for 3 days. NWS' maid begs her to tell her XFM it's all a misunderstanding, that NWS had nothing to do with the consort's suicide, so NWS and XFM can mend their loving relationship. NWS is casually like, oh that was me actually - surprise! The maid is super shocked and confused. Me too, honey. Zero background on when she planned it, nada explanation on how she pulled it off, no emotional insight - nothing.
3. I'm all for questionable behavior when characters need to stay true to their goals or loyalties, etc. But I'm not a fan of viciousness "just because" - and towards the later chapters, I find myself asking does the female lead really need to be written so vicious and cruel? After #2 above, it was honestly kind of hard to keep going, but okay maybe the heroine HAD to do commit murder to trigger war, no other options. Okay, fine. Then I read chapter 500. There's a young girl who wanted to join XFM's harem but failed to get XFM's attention. In jealousy and retaliation the girl attempts to drown NWS while NWS is taking a bath in her personal hot spring bath. NWS manages to survive the attack and orders her servants to drown this girl in the bath so she can experience what she just experienced. The servants beg her to send the girl for official punishment instead but she insists on returning eye for an eye. So the girl proceeds to get drowned in her bath as she watches on emotionlessly. Um... really author? Was that really necessary... way too coldblooded for me.