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Empress Orchid is the latest work by Anchee Min, the acclaimed author of "Becoming Madame Mao" and "Red Azalea." The book is based on the life of Orchid, a concubine in the court of Emperor Hsein Feng who later went on to become Empress of China, ruling for more than 40 years.
The description on the back cover of the book sounds fascinating - a woman managing to come to power in a male-dominated society, trying to protect and preserve her country against the European powers who seek to carve it up for their own purposes. Added to this the undeniable allure of exoticism (books on court life in ancient China are hard to come by), and the hint of sexiness given the fact that Orchid is a concubine, and the expectations of sex, romance, intrigue are all set. They exist in the book, but for a number of reasons they fail to take hold of the reader and pull you in, and the end result is a book that holds a lot of potential but fails miserably.
The book begins with the death of Orchid's father, thrusting her into a series of events that leads to her and her family relocating to Peking, where they are obligated to her uncle. When he proposes marrying Orchid to his opium-addicted half-wit
son, she gets desperate and so goes to the Imperial Palace to see whether or not she can be chosen as one of the 3,000 Manchu girls the new Emperor seeks to build his harem, and as luck and fate would have it, she is chosen to be one of his six wives. Thus begins Orchid's (now rechristened Lady Yehonala, after her clan name) new life within the walls of the Forbidden City. The book then follows her life until the end of her husband's reign, ending with the aftermath of her husband's death.
The biggest problem of this book is the characters. Orchid has the potential to be a fascinating character as she learns to manipulate the complex systems of etiquette and influence within the Forbidden Palace, but the descriptions come off as cumbersome. Min focuses her efforts on describing life in the city in exquisite detail, down to the types of meals and number of dishes the concubines were each fed every day, but gives short shrift to the emotional/dramatic elements of the plot. The detail is fascinating, but it gets to be overkill. By the end of reading how lavish their lifestyles were, I felt repulsed by the senseless waste and extravagance above anything else. To be sure, there are hints of a more complex personality lurking under the surface of both Orchid and her main rival, Nuharoo, but they are never fleshed out in full detail. Given that the book is written in the first person, Orchid displays a surprising lack of depth to her emotions: jealousy, resignation, despair, love - but Min glosses over exploring these emotions more deeply, and the result is a protagonist who is, honestly, quite dull. Everything, including beheadings and courtly intrigue, even the sex scenes, are dispassionate and detached (although a highlight for me was reading about a very strange sex trick involving an egg...)
This is a shame, given how fascinating the historical backdrop of this period in Chinese history is. The story takes place during the growing colonial pressures on China, the struggles with opium, and the Boxer Rebellion. All of these are incidents that Orchid has to contend with, especially as her influence in the court grows, but Min cuts off going into detail either because Orchid professes ignorance or because she has filled herself in by reading the treaty and deduced what is going on. The historical figure of Orchid lived at a crucial point in Chinese history, but the reader is given precious little insight into the challenges and struggles she faced. Instead, Min goes on at length about the effects such extreme stress has on the Emperor, and goes into unecessary detail about his illness when she could be talking about Orchid. Perhaps the book would have been more successful had it focused mostly on Orchid's life as Empress rather than her rise to power.
In the end, the reader fails to bond with the characters because you never learn much about them. There are moments of interest in the book, but between the lack of character development and the excessive amounts of detail, the book goes from a potentially wonderful book to a 336 page read that drags on with no end in sight. When the end does finally arrive, it's both anti-climactic and puzzling. For the life of me, I cannot understand how so many well-respected newspapers and reviewers could give it such rave reviews. It is entirely unworthy, and not worth the $14 my mother paid for it. If you really want to read it, I would advise going to a library so you don't feel awful about spending the money on it only to be disappointed.
----------------------------------- Empress Orchid, by Anchee Min. 2004. Available on Amazon.co.uk in paperback starting from £3.99 Suitable for 14+