by Anchee Min
Category: Fiction / Historical
336 pages; ISBN: 0618068872
Rating: 8/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Harriet Klausner
Houghton Mifflin, Feb 2004, $24.00, 336 pp.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, seventeen years old Orchid accompanies her aristocratic clan to Beijing to inter her deceased father. Meanwhile the Emperor Hsien Feng decrees that he seeks a wife who must have royal blood so that the offspring are purebred Manchu. Though related to the Manchus, her family faces poverty until Hsien surprisingly selects Orchid.
As her clan’s situation improves considerably from the Emperor’s gifts, Orchid resides in a boring luxurious lifestyle in the Forbidden City in which she can trust no one. Beginning to understand how to secure her tentative position, Orchid becomes determined to birth the heir, which she cleverly accomplishes. As the western imperialists carve up China, Hsien dies leaving his five year old son begat with Orchid as the Emperor, but he is too young to rule. His mother is his only hope to survive in a Machiavellian sea of duplicity and changing loyalties in which no one can be trusted.
This is a vibrant fascinating historical fiction tale of China’s last Empress. The story line is over-loaded with so much detail that fans who appreciate intrinsic depth into a bygone era will want to read the EMPRESS ORCHID. However, the profundity of each elaborate description of court life and the Forbidden City in the late 1800s also tends to slow down the action in which intrigue and executions are the norm. Those who enjoy historical sociology as the prime theme will cherish Anchee Min’s tale, but those who want to swim in the shark infested pool will find this first person account too slow.
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