In 1988, THE COURT OF THE LION was published by William Morrow in the US and by Viking Penguin in the UK.

 A few years earlier, authors Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri had the brilliant good luck of connecting with agent Robert Gottlieb, who was then with William Morris. We’d been at work for a couple of years on our tale drawn from the true annals of T’ang history, a fictionalized telling of the buildup to the renowned eighth-century rebellion of An Lu-shan and the fall of the benevolent Emperor Minghuang. A series of serendipitous coincidences of the sort that cause one to ponder the mysterious mechanics of fate led us to Robert, who immediately saw the potential in the outline and partial manuscript we presented. This was just before the word-processing revolution; what we put in his hands was about to become a relic of another era. The work-in-progress had been hammered out on portable typewriters, back when “cut and paste” meant literally that, with scissors and scotch tape, “backup” was carbon paper, and “editing” was crossouts and hand-scrawled changes. By today’s standards, what we gave to Robert looked a bit of a mess, but he saw beyond mere appearances,  loved what was there, signed us, and we were off and running.

We got to work whipping the manuscript into shape. We ditched the typewriters and got one of the earliest word processors, a suitcase-sized metal box with a tiny green screen like something from a WW2 Soviet submarine. But it was beyond adequate—suddenly, we were turbocharged. A clean, beautiful 1500-page manuscript emerged, Robert made the sale to Morrow, the almost-1000-page book was released, and the great reviews poured in.

All the major characters in THE COURT OF THE LION are real, once-living, once-breathing people from T’ang history. One of them, though dead for over fifty years at the opening of COURT,  exerts a powerful pull from the shadows—the Empress Wu Tse-tien, grandmother of COURT’S tragic Emperor Minghuang. COURT’S villainous Chief Minister Li Lin-fu sighs with pleasure as he recounts her baroque Machiavellian cruelties, vividly conjuring her in an early chapter: he’s especially inspired by the Empress as he makes plans to exile an inconvenient official to the prison island of Hainan, also known, euphoniously enough, as the Shore of Pearls, a diseased, sweltering tropical hell a thousand miles to the south. The Empress herself began this fine tradition, bestowing such amusing titles as “cultural emissary” on the prisoners before they were seized and transported—renditioned, as we’d say today--never to be seen or heard from again. In a later COURT chapter, “Ice and Tears,” we are on the island, looking through the fevered eyes of Li Lin-fu’s inconvenient official, now a feral ragged crazed ruin of a man after years of exile. We share his jibbering dreams and teeming hallucinations, feel the hot tears on the skin of his face and hear the roar of the jungle night as he wakes from his thousandth dream of home…

In the COURT chapter called “Grandmother’s Ghost,” the kindly Emperor, who inherited none of Wu’s traits, speaks of her: “Some said that she drank a cup of blood instead of tea in the morning.” Before we finished THE COURT OF THE LION, the Empress Wu was already commanding us to make the next book about her.

And so COURT was followed a few years later by IRON EMPRESS (called DECEPTION then).  Also populated with real people who actually lived, including Magistrate Ti Ren-chieh, popularized in the 1950s by Robert van Gulik as the Sherlock Holmsian Judge Dee, it’s our fictionalized telling of the rise of the Empress Wu Tse-tien. The historical facts were thrilling and provocative: not only were the Empress Wu and Magistrate Dee, as we call him, real people who actually lived, but they knew one another and he was absolutely crucial to the restoration of the T’ang after the Empress’ bloody outlaw reign. Almost on its own, an intricate tale began to weave itself, with Magistrate Dee the sleuth faced with a series of baffling murders that lead him, eventually, to the Empress, her terrifying mother, and her lover, the Tibetan monk-magician Hsueh Huai-i.

IRON EMPRESS became a bestseller, in Germany and France especially, and so it was time for a third novel. We hungered to revisit the prison island, and SHORE OF PEARLS was born. It happens in a four-year interval in the action of IRON EMPRESS.  Wu has risen to near-ultimate power, has established her own rogue Buddhist state, and is on her way to the pinnacle, with only one last obstacle—her gender—to overcome. She belies any quaint notion of the fair sex as “gentler;” the dead, broken and decapitated bodies in her wake—some of them her next of kin—would have done Nero proud. But it’s the still-living victims of the Empress who concern Magistrate Dee as he, barely in possession of his own head after fleeing the capital city, journeys south to the port city of Canton, whence he hopes to get to the island. He fears for the lives and fates of a group of scholars exiled there, "cultural emissaries," survivors of a failed rebellion against the Empress.

Doing our research, we made a juicy discovery: bubonic plague had come to China in that exact era, via the trading ships putting in from all parts of the known world.  And a great cosmopolitan port city in the T’ang Dynasty would have been a crossroads, with humanity of every possible size, shape and color. We knew that Persians were the most scientifically advanced of the era, and so we invented a Persian physician with a theory about rats, fleas and plague. Again, the tale practically spun itself. And we thought: poor Dee is far, far from home and his two wives. Let’s give him a love interest. And let’s make her Persian, elegant, sophisticated and smoking hot. And let’s have Hsueh  Huai-i glide through the tale like a snake at a garden party. And let’s make this book be the story of the missing four years in IRON EMPRESS, completeing it, enriching it, deepening it. 

All told, the books were translated into some eleven languages in over forty editions.

Now we see that we have a trilogy. Each book can, of course, be read on its own, in any order, but if the reader begins with IRON EMPRESS and goes on to SHORE OF PEARLS and then to THE COURT OF THE LION, he/she will live a vivid family and historical saga, seething with mystery, intrigue, poetry, violence and eroticism, spanning more than a century, in lands as far flung as Szechuan to the west, the frozen windswept steppes to the north and Hainan to the south, peopled with everyone from Emperors to street urchins, soldiers to monks, poets to barbarians, witches to concubines. 

These vigorous ghosts of medieval China, first manifesting through the medium of the typewriter, now demand admission to the 21st century via the strange magic of digitalization. Ming-wu, Taoist immortal witch-woman of the Pure Flower Hot Springs, approves. 

Then, endlessly, the House of Han blazed the war beacons.

The beacons are always burning — fighting and marching never ends.

Men die in the field, sword to sword;

The horses of the vanquished neigh piteously to Heaven.

Crows and hawks peck for human guts,

Carry them aloft in their beaks, dropping them to hang in the naked branches of withered trees.

Captains and soldiers are only bloody smears upon the shrubs and grass;

The general schemed in vain.

Know ye that the sword is a wicked thing

Which the wise man uses only if he must.

            — Li Po, 755 A.D.   Translated by Daniel Altieri

Buchanan and Li Literary Associates

Website by Eleanor Cooney

Realization of bookcover designs thanks to Mendo Litho of Ft. Bragg, CA

Latest comments

08.03 | 09:51

Checking whether the domment replies have been fixed

12.02 | 19:49

I've always held a special pace in my heart for your the "Court of the Li...

18.11 | 00:53

Thank you for the kind words, Mr. Byrnes. It was indeed a shock, ...

14.11 | 14:10

Terrible shocking news. R I P, Mr. Altieri. Condolences to Mrs. Altieri , yo...