The Lacquered Talisman

A Novel of Fourteenth Century China

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
300 Pages
Reviewed on 03/25/2021
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Author Biography

Laurie Dennis has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and in Beijing, China, and she has traveled widely across China, including a research trip to Fengyang, Anhui Province, the birthplace of the Ming founder. She currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and works on China programs for her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Lacquered Talisman is the first in a planned series on the Ming founding.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Stacie Haas for Readers' Favorite

The emperor and founder of the Ming Dynasty isn’t fond of the way his history is recalled on the Imperial Tomb Tablet, as The Lacquered Talisman by Laurie Dennis opens. It says nothing of the despair and misfortune that befell his family, nothing of how hot it was the summer his parents perished, nothing of what it was like to eat tree bark so he didn’t starve. And so, the emperor decided, the tablet should be destroyed and his history re-written by his own hand. Fortune, as he was then known, was the youngest son of a bean curd maker. A sickly baby, he survived only after his father promised him to the temple if Buddha spared him. He did survive and with only a pockmarked face as a lasting effect. The plague took most of his family away and put Fortune on a path to become a monk at Tiger Empress Temple and to be called Vessel. As Vessel, he studied the stars and the politics of the day, including uprisings against the Mongol rulers. When he finds himself at the top of a mountain with Daoists, Vessel finally learns of about the markings on his family talisman and asks the heavens for guidance about his future—and it isn’t as a monk. What comes next is a story for volume two.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Lacquered Talisman by Laurie Dennis. It was painstakingly researched and presented as a classic work of literary fiction with a beautifully flowing narrative. It is simply superb from beginning to end. Certainly, the history of Zhu Yuanzhang, emperor of the Ming Dynasty, is an interesting one to tell, but Laurie Dennis brought it to life. The writing is lyrical like poetry and accessible like a contemporary novel. I found it engrossing and dramatic against the backdrop of fourteenth-century China. What a wonderful peek into the prevailing culture and traditions of the Chinese people at the time. I greatly appreciated the historical notes at the end and the wonderful map. I highly recommend The Lacquered Talisman for lovers of history and historical fiction, and indeed, all lovers of great books. I cannot wait for volume two to read the rest of the story.

Grant Leishman

The Lacquered Talisman: A Novel of Fourteenth Century China is the debut novel for author Laurie Dennis and a deep dive into the fascinating world of the middle-kingdom during the time of Mongol rule. Zhu Yuanzhang, also known as “Fortune,” was born into a poor, rural family of bean curd sellers. A sickly child, he survived but would forever be scarred by his pockmarked face. When the family upset the local officials by disrespecting one of them, their bean curd shop was not only destroyed, but they were also banished from their hometown and forced to seek a new place to live. Farming a barren landscape as tenant farmers, the family struggles to survive, with young Fortune sent out to care for the landlord’s goats. Drought and a horrific plague would sweep through China destroying livelihoods and families completely, leaving Fortune alone and lost in a world that seems foreign to him. Honoring his father’s prayer when he was a sickly baby, Fortune has little choice but to join a Buddhist monastery to survive. As a rebellion against the Mongol warlords starts to take hold across his region, Fortune realizes he must join his boyhood friend and fellow goat-herder to fight to ensure the “mantle of heaven” is passed to its rightful heir, the true Chinese. His wanderings will ultimately take him to the point where this humble monk will found the greatest dynasty to rule China, the Ming Dynasty, where he will ultimately take his place as Emperor of all China.

The Lacquered Talisman is a sweeping tale of poverty, loss, oppression, and ultimately redemption that is based, in large part, on historical reality. Author Laurie Dennis clearly has a passion for the Chinese and their great civilizations of the past and that shines through every page. The basic tenets of the novel, as outlined in the Emperor’s own words and recorded for posterity, are stuck to religiously and all the author was required to do was flesh out those pivotal moments in “Fortune’s” life, to add character, humanity, and passion to his own words – a task she performs beautifully. I particularly loved the inclusion of the many poems from great Chinese poets that the author sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. This was a beautifully written tale that delved deep into the personality of the man who would one day become Emperor and we were made privy to his humanity, his immense suffering, and his underlying deep principles. As a story of one overcoming the odds of birth, it could hardly have been more inspiring. The descriptions of the living conditions of the time are bleak, stark, and evocative, yet one can feel the overwhelming beauty and majesty of the vast landscape covered in the story. As a primer to read the next episode of this author’s work, it made me desperate to find out how this humble monk would go on to found the great and powerful Ming dynasty. I will definitely be watching out for the next iteration of “Fortune’s” life and can highly recommend this book.

Mamta Madhavan

The Lacquered Talisman: The Great Ming House Of Zhu: Volume One: A novel of fourteenth-century China by Laurie Dennis is set against the backdrop of the eighth year of the Ming Dynasty, and chronicles the life story of the first Ming Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang who rose to great heights from humble beginnings. The hardships he faced as a boy, being from a family which had a bean curd business, and rising from there to become the founder of the Ming Dynasty which ruled China from 1368-1644 are covered in this historical fiction novel. Known as Fortune Boy and then later as Vessel, the book follows Zhu's rise to power from childhood to young adulthood and the trials and tribulations he faced which shaped his personality. His growing up years amid poverty, the military, and political turmoil give readers a peek into the life of a boy who endured tragedy after tragedy. He was left with nothing after most of his family perished in the plague, but a lacquered talisman that was given to him by his grandfather. This first part of the novel takes readers on his journey as a boy till he reached the age of twenty-three.

The author masterfully knits in Chinese traditions, customs, and culture along with history, making it an engaging and informative book. Zhu's time in the monastery shows how he was taught to read, write, and learn about the stars. This book gives a lot of interesting details and the difficulties faced by the characters shed light on the hardships, human bonds, obstacles, plague, failing crops, and the oppressive society that existed during that period, making life difficult. The author's knowledge of the Chinese religious traditions and culture is evident from the descriptions. Laurie Dennis's research is excellent and captures the richness of Chinese culture. The Lacquered Talisman is descriptive and gives readers a detailed view of the society that prevailed in 14th century China and how Zhu grew up to establish the Ming dynasty. Dennis's storytelling skills shine through this novel. It is enjoyable, wonderful, and intriguing, and like me, readers must be waiting for Volume 2.