Posted by: Gregg | July 27, 2006

Empress Orchid – Anchee Min

One of the best things about my job is that I often run into good books when I wasn’t expecting them. I’m signed up with a site called dearreader.com that emails an excerpt of a book to you every day. The site has several different genres you can subscribe to and it’s designed for people who say that don’t have time to read. Reading the emailed excerpts only takes a few minutes a day – just long enough to give you a taste of the book and to see if it’s worth following up on. I use it as a reader’s advisory resource. The quality of the reads are scattershot, but every so often I stumble across one that surprises me.

Empress Orchid is a novel based on the true story of the Empress Dowager, a woman who ruled China roughly the same time as England’s Queen Victoria. She was born into a poor family, noble in name only by the thinnest of margins, and lucked into the Emperor’s court as a concubine and worked her way up the ladder. She’s reviled in Chinese history, blamed for the nations’s widespread opium addiction and crippling trade concessions to the British, French, and the Russians. Min, who’s from China, paints her far more sympathetically.

Empress Orchid is a rich historical novel, brimming with narrative details about court life that draws the reader in without ever going overboard. We follow Orchid’s rise from a young girl, nearly begging on the street to the Emperor’s throne itself, using her wits when she doesn’t have the bloodline or the schooling to fall back on. Minor characters play crucial roles in her life, like the shoemaker who used to be a dancer for the Emperor who first shows Orchid how to dress, act, and how to catch the Emperor’s eye. There’s the loyal eunuch servant who has eyes and ears everywhere in the court, and the Empress who is both her partner and her main rival. Orchid uses whatever she can to provide for herself, her royal son, and for her beloved nation that is blind to its own decline and corruption.

This is not a novel I would have normally picked up, but I’m glad I stumbled across it. The writing is intoxicating – it’s the kind of book that you think about long after your bookmark leaves it – and I will certainly track down Min’s other novels. Well worth getting.

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