I picked up Empress Orchid for one kind of shallow reason. I know practically nothing about pre-Communism China, and this seemed like an interesting way to dip into some history that I have been intrigued by for some time without getting bogged down in text-books of varying dryness.
Born into an impoverished family of aristocratic blood, Orchid decides to compete to be one of the Emperor’s wives when the alternatives are to marry her cousin or become homeless. Winning a place as one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s concubines only proves to be the beginning of her troubles though, as it soon becomes apparent that being one of his wives is to be part of a treacherous race to be the first to bear the Emperor a son. And those who are favourites today can easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I vaguely remember hearing about the woman who this novel is about, Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi. What I do remember was basically that she essentially ruled China via her son during the final years of the Qing dynasty, and that she was something of a person to be reckoned with. I remember my teacher telling us about her with more than a little admiration. So it was nice to learn about her life in more detail, if perhaps a bit embellished. I’m happy to say that Anchee Min’s depiction of her is utterly absorbing, and I am more than a little interested to read other books that she’s written. Certainly, if you’re after a book that has both tragedy and courtly intrigue up to the hilt, then Empress Orchid is definitely one to consider. The ways that the concubines in particular fight amongst one another is probably my favourite aspect of the novel, because it can be utterly devastating in its effect whilst still being so much subtler and unassuming in appearance.
Orchid herself is also very well written. I can’t tell for sure how accurate her depiction is compared to what we know about her from historical records, but I certainly found her to be an engaging protagonist. Developing an iron will in order to flourish in an environment that she is incredibly unhappy in, she is fascinating if not always entirely likeable. Likewise, the people that she interacts with, like her fellow Empress Nuharoo and her personal eunuch servant An-te-hai, are a varying mix of fascinating and repulsing. Nuharoo in particular is brilliantly written, if only to see how easily she hides her spoiled and jealous nature.
The one thing that bothers me is the ending. It doesn’t so much finish as screech to a halt once the word count is filled. I know that this is the first in a duology, but I still feel that the ending of Empress Orchid could have been handled with at least a little more grace than it is.
Empress Orchid is fantastically written with some really nasty court rivalries and some impressively evoked characters. The fact that it’s based on real events only makes this more interesting, and I wouldn’t mind learning more about the era depicted. My only issue is that the ending is too abrupt, a move that is surprisingly clumsy compared to the elegance of the rest of the novel. 4/5
Next review: Rose Madder by Stephen King