K's Reviews > Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
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Oct 02, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: chinajapan, historicalfiction

After my negative review of The Twentieth Wife A Novel, Mintzi recommended The Last Empress as a superior alternative and I thought I might as well read the prequel first.

"Empress Orchid" started off pretty strong -- Orchid, like Mehrunissa from "The Twentieth Wife," is a poor girl who miraculously rises to be the emperor's wife but unlike Mehrunissa, is not a goody-goody Mary Sue heroine. Chosen from among thousands of young women as the emperor's fourth concubine, Orchid discovers that palace life is oppressively dull. She remains unnoticed by the emperor but her responsibility notwithstanding to be on call for him 24/7 precludes any other activity which might serve as a source of stimulation or assuage her loneliness. Desperate to change her circumstances, she bribes her way into the emperor's bed and learns all sorts of tricks to satisfy him, so that she manages to stay on his radar screen long enough to get pregnant with -- luckily -- his only son.

At this point, the book took a turn for the worse. Dialogue and narrative became increasingly pedantic as the novel's focus shifted from Orchid's personal struggles to the wars plaguing China at the time and Orchid's increasingly active role in assisting the emperor. I don't know enough about Chinese history to tell you whether this aspect of the story was accurate or realistic, but I can tell you this -- it bored me. And it didn't have to. The political intrigue could have been interesting, had it been a little less dry and impersonally written.

Toward the end, the book depicted Orchid's lack of control in the decisions surrounding her son. As the fourth concubine outranked by the official empress, Orchid was compelled to defer to the empress who overindulged her son rather than building his character. Orchid, who wished her son to be disciplined so as to become an effective ruler, naturally lost influence with him as she tried to take a harder line. It's a complex conflict, but despite this, Anchee Min had completely lost my interest at that point and I was skimming the book rapidly (and not missing much, I suspect).

Anchee Min recreates 1850s China with great detail which starts out fascinating but eventually gets tiresome as it weighs down the story. Similarly, I started out liking and empathizing with Orchid but eventually grew disenchanted with her as the story became less about her and more about China and her character became increasingly flat. By the end of the book, I couldn't bring myself to care all that much about her or her story, and am not sure whether I will end up picking up the sequel.
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02/15/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Rachel Ditto! At first Orchid's character was very interesting, but by the end I found myself rushing to get through it. I also felt that the "political intrigue" side at the last half wasn't what it could've been. For example, instead of constantly referencing battles and people and specific treaties we know nothing about, Min could have developed An-te-hai's "spymaster" storyline, or added more details to make Su Shun more of a personal nemesis.


message 2: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Thanks, Rachel! Always good to know I'm not alone.


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