It’s Better to be the Empress Dowager (宫斗不如当太后) by by September Flowing Fire (Jiu Yue Liu Huo, 九月流火)
Historical romance published in 2021
Tang ShiShi was the number one beauty. She was arrogant, domineering and aggressive. She accidentally acquired a book and learned that she was just a vicious female second lead in a palace struggle. Later, she would fight for favor with the female lead, and eventually she was ruined and died miserably.
Now, they have just entered the fief of Jing Wang, and the first meeting of the male and female leads has not happened yet. There are two paths before Tang ShiShi. The first is to hold the heroine’s thighs tightly and join the female lead camp early; the second is to please the male lead and steal the favor of the female lead.
Tang Shishi chooses the third way.
Tang Shishi knew that the male lead’s adoptive father Jing Wang seemed to be low profile, but in fact he was overly ambitious. In the near future, he will invade the capital and proclaim himself emperor before the imperial court, but it is a pity that he passed away before passing the throne to the male lead.
This year, Jing Wang is twenty-four years old, still young, and has yet to marry a wife.
Anyway, she already in the game. Instead of being the concubine of the male lead, it is better to be his adopted mother, the empress dowager in one step.
Zhao Chengjun had no intention to get married, so he adopted his subordinate’s son as his heir. He thought he would be with his army his whole life.
Later, the imperial family sent a team of beauties to Prince Jing, and the leader was named Tang ShiShi.
His young, adopted son and his subordinates also persuaded: Your Highness, this is a beauty trap.
Jing Wang: I know.
The so-called beauty trap was merely a bait for those who wish. – lightly edited from Novel Updates
The prompt for this month was “Once More With Feeling” and I figured since this is the only Chinese romance novel I’ve re-read so far, it fits. We’re going with loose interpretations here. It’s Better to be the Empress Dowager features another delightful mad romp of a story with a loveable heroine, a grumpy but entirely devoted hero, and a frustrating cast of characters you love to hate. I described the heroine as an utter chaos muppet, and I stand by it. She’s such a delightful mess handicapped by what she thinks is a “life cheat” and it makes her constantly second guess herself and make the “wrong” choices that ultimately of course turn out to be entirely right.
Tang ShiShi (TSS) is mostly described as being not that smart in the book, but I disagree. She’s incredibly smart, but in the context of the story she’s stupid because she first sets her sights on the wrong man. Not even because she’s in love with him, but because she thinks he can provide her – and thus her mother – with the best possible life. In fact, protecting and providing for her mother is TSS’s entire driving motivation. Of course the added bonus is the fact that it means she’ll also be able to live well too. I can’t blame a bitch for just wanting to live a peaceful life in luxury. It’s really only a blip, but at one point TSS says if she were a man she could take and pass the imperial exam. She’s incredibly well read, and initially she did it for a man (her betrothed) but she then did it for herself too. Unfortunately life got in the way and she was summed to be an imperial consort candidate, and her initial plans were derailed.
Zhao ChengJun (ZCJ) starts out as a very cold hero. You can’t blame him once you learn about his background and his life – and then for the setting itself, beause he’s looking at this beautiful woman who is constantly throwing herself at his adopted son. (The adopted son is only five or six years younger than he is.) ZCJ watches TSS compete with a mess of other women (there are at least six from the palace who I sent I believe, as well as the son’s wife, and others – this is a time when harems were not only allowed but expected). It’s so frustrating because once he falls for TSS he can’t tell her though. (His previous two fiancées were murdered by the empress dowager though there’s of course no evidence – she’s a worthy, evil opponent.) He mentions throughout the book he must have owed TSS in a previous life considering how much he pampers and indulges her. So all that frustration you felt towards him in the beginning is more than made up for by the end. ZCJ is one of the most caring heroes ever.
There are so many layers to this story from the stupid mystical book TSS has (which is why she thinks she knows everything that will happen and why she never considers ZCJ as a target/love interest – why go after someone who is “cannon fodder” and will die shortly?) , to the scheming of women, to the court intrigue and TSS just trying to stay alive. As I stated, she’s sent by the palace to possibly become a consort for ZCJ. Thus, everyone thinks she’s in the camp of the empress dowager, and her spy. Actually TSS has no loyalty to her, nor does she have any real ties to her terrible family, and it’s really funny seeing the empress dowager and her people trying to bribe and threaten TSS with her family. She just plays along though – sometimes she’s “stupid,” but she’s definitely very good at playing stupid. TSS is also stunning, so she takes full advantage of the bias people have that beautiful women are stupid.
What was also interesting to me is that normally I can’t stand misunderstandings, but here pretty much all the ones between TSS and ZCJ make sense. And you’re like “I just want to SHAKE YOU CAN’T YOU COMMUNICATE” but you also understand why they don’t. All of their actions, their feelings and thoughts simply make so much sense. TSS doesn’t think ZCJ loves her, ZCJ thinks his actions more than convey his feelings. He also can’t tell her a lot of things because he’s planning a rebellion. (Though is it really a rebellion when the current ruler – in actuality the empress dowager is unjustly in control?)
For the translation itself I felt there were some issues but it was much better than a lot of others I’ve read, and I didn’t feel lost or anything. (If any of you ever wants to try it I’m happy to answer any questions I can!) This book also had some of my most favorite extras/epilogues out of any of the c-novels I’ve read so far.
This book also is ultimately quite light hearted, and I was laughing in so many scenes. TSS does not care at all about pretending to be virtuous or magnanimous. She mostly wants to be left alone, but if you go to cause problems for her she’ll not only mess you up, she’ll mess up your whole family. And that’s also why I call her a chaos muppet. I fully support my petty queen. There’s a scene with her family – first when we meet her sister, then the rest of her family, that lives rent free in my head. Just thinking about it now is making me chuckle.
I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read by September Flowing Fire, and I look forward to more. In fact I’m impatiently waiting for fully translated novels so I can read/re-read them. And I know I’ll be re-reading It’s Better to be the Empress Dowager as well. I really hope you’ll give this book – or any of the others I’ve talked about in past posts a try!
I read the novel here.