Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Title: Empress Orchid
Author: Anchee Min
Publisher: Mariner Books
Published: 2005
Pages: 368

Rating: 8 out of 10

Empress Orchid, which combines the stories of a powerful empire crumbling and a powerful empress rising, transported me back in time to 1852 China, and provided sharp insight into the life of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Orchid is just an ordinary girl in China, dreading her upcoming arranged marriage, until she makes it into a very selective group of girls who will have a chance to become royal concubines, or perhaps even Empress. After passing, Orchid's life changes forever. She learns that beneath the mask of beauty in the Forbidden City lies treachery and betrayal. As she makes her way in and out of danger, Orchid observes and takes part in the politics of her country, and finds herself rising to power.

This book was absolutely fascinating - one of my favorite books that I have ever read on historical China. I knew little of the infamous empress Cixi, so I came away from this feeling like I had learned much.

Anchee Min describes the setting of the Forbidden City, which is present-day Beijing, in wondrous, lush detail. I felt that I could picture the gardens Orchid walks in, the fat koi in her ponds, the chambers filled with unimaginable wealth. I also felt the dark undertone to such ostentatious beauty as Orchid learns about the complex, unforgiving undercurrent of her new home. Betrayal, deceit, and spies are everywhere.

The customs of the Chinese people at this time were very interesting to me as well. There is a sense of honor to some, arrogance to others, and utter frivolity to others. Min truly gives you a sense of the culture, and she takes the time to explain customs that would no doubt seem confusing or pointless to modern Western readers.

And besides a setting and a culture, the author also weaves strong, memorable characters for us.
There is the emperor, of course, a blatantly proud and spoiled man who has been handed an entire nation when he is so entirely undeserving of such power. He exercises his absolute influence with harsh punishments and decrees, but we see through Orchid's eyes that he is in fact simply a frightened, simple, and altogether weak man. Even though the author did not delve into his story all that much, she did a good job of making the reader both hate and sympathize with him.
Niuhuru (spelled Nuharoo in the book, which is how her name is pronounced) was a character that I also found interesting. She is the beautiful, high born queen, the first chosen of the emperor, and therefore a rank above Orchid. She is stunningly beautiful, and while for most of the story she was a sweet, compassionate, and timid creature, there is a dark side to her as well. For example, a day after she speaks jealously with Orchid, Orchid's beloved cat is murdered. She schemes to take the Emperor away from Orchid, and she even attempts to have Orchid whipped while pregnant, which would most certainly have resulted in the unborn child's death. I wondered how much Niuhuru pretended, and what her nature truly was.
And then there was An-te-hai, Orchid's forever faithful eunuch and personal attendant. His unwavering, selfless loyalty to his mistress is touching and at times heartbreaking, and the relationship between them is a very well written one. They depend on each other, and they love each other. Toward the end, when he tells Orchid about his dreams, we see further into his pain. He was a well written character without having to be mentioned all that much.

There were other strong characters as well, but above them all stands our narrator, Orchid herself. She is a strong, intelligent, and insightful woman who at time seems wiser than all of the other governors and advisers and emperors.
The phases of her life were recounted eloquently - her adjustment to the new wealth of being a royal concubine, her agonizing wait longing to be noticed by her husband, her love and loss of a king, her painful love for her son even after he is taken from her and raised to be everything she despises, and her desperate longing for someone to love her. I felt, by the end of the book, that I knew her. She will not be a character that I will soon forget, and Min's story has inspired me to research Empress Cixi in greater detail.

This is a lovely, epic tale of China, through the eyes of one woman who ruled it.

Highly, highly recommended.