By LENNA STITES
“The Weeping Empress” is the story about a young woman, Chiyo Alglaeca, who suddenly finds herself torn from the life she used to know, and thrown into circumstances that she cannot comprehend. Her comfortable life with her husband and kids becomes only a memory when she awakens one day as a captive amongst many other prisoners at the will of the Emperor. Chiyo’s instinct is to fight for her freedom and she successfully escapes her captors with the help of two rogue swordsmen, if only momentarily.
When word of Chiyo’s escape and new-found friendship with the two men, named Mujah and Senka, reaches the Emperor, he becomes intent on capturing them. The situation is only complicated when news of Chiyo travels to a sacred religious cult, the Sacerdotisa, who believe her to be the prophesized Arm of the Goddess Kali. The Sacerdotisa used to be a reigning group of the land; however, as the people started to lose faith, they lost power. And although they still hold a revered position in society, they hope that Chiyo will be the one to help them rebuild their support.
In being pursued by a religious cult and a country’s Emperor, Chiyo’s tale becomes a mythology for the common people. “The Weeping Empress” is a story about this young woman’s fight for survival against a pre-determined destiny and the oppression of her free will.
Chiyo initially struck me as whiny but at the same time she was resourceful and courageous when she needed to be. For instance, when she picked up a sword in self-defense, or when she sacrificed herself for the freedom of the other captives, there was a fire in her that was easy to root for.
On the one hand, she was angry because she was confused, had those closest to her taken away from her, and because she could not do anything about it. She had no idea how to get home, or how she was taken from it in the first place. On the other hand, she felt numb because she had to learn to accept her circumstances and in doing so, repress the memories of her former life, which only made her feel homesick and saddened to remember.
The dynamic between Chiyo, Mujah, and Senka was fun to read because the three of them had such distinct personalities. I enjoyed being able to experience how their friendship and relationship grew through the course of the novel. The grouping of these three characters and their interactions was reminiscent of the popular anime series “Samurai Champloo,” which was also centered on three unlikely companions who were all taking the same journey. Chiyo’s fight started as being about finding a way home; however, without realizing it, she ultimately joined the movement to take down the Emperor. It was what Mujah and Senka wanted and, unbeknownst to her, it was also what the Sacerdotisa wanted to use her for. They wanted to present her as a symbolic leader, a figurehead, as appointed by the Goddess Kali herself, much in the same way that the Emperor in modern-day Japan is thought to be symbolic in status.
My main qualm about the novel was that although I enjoyed it, and the ending was well thought out, it left some questions unanswered. Personally, I was driven by the question of who Chiyo was and how she ended up in this land that seemed so foreign to her. The reader is left ignorant about where she came from. All we are told is that in comparison to Mujah and Senka, she speaks a bit differently, looks different, and acts different, such that she is very clearly a foreigner. Though this new land she is in has similarities to a feudal age of Japan, it is not explicitly stated that that is where she is, or that that is where she came from. We only know that she left behind a husband and a daughter.
Therefore, I wanted to have an explanation of how she got there but instead, when the time came, that mystery was implied to be nothing more than a religious miracle: “’I don’t know exactly how they accomplished their task’, Relda responded… ‘Bringing you here probably required the intercession of the Goddess herself, and I don’t presume to question her methods.’’’(Page 183) This was dissatisfying because it remained to be one of the main unanswered questions, and if anybody could explain it, it would be the author.
Though the novel felt long in some places, it showed creativity, and it is easy to appreciate the way in which the author wrapped up the story as a whole. Chiyo may not always come across as the most sympathetic character in nature, but between wanting to know about her past and how she will proceed into the future, the plot was intriguing. Even the vague explanation of Chiyo’s arrival into the setting proved to be a clever tactic to frame the story such that the novel was a re-telling of the fictional mythology in their world, of the Weeping Empress. It has an interesting premise and for readers who enjoy tales that are a bit different, I would recommend “The Weeping Empress.”
Lenna Stites is a book blogger and freelance book reviewer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Book Review. She may be reached via email.