Orchid’s family is of ancient Manchurian lineage, but they are dirt poor throughout her childhood. When her father dies, things get even worse, and she is forced to move to Peking with her mother, brother, and sister to live in a small house with her uncle’s family. Orchid starts work in a shoe shop and actually enjoys herself, mainly for the tales her boss tells her about the Forbidden City and the emperor’s many palaces. When Orchid is told that she must marry her slovenly, stupid cousin, though, she seeks refuge from her fate in a contest to become one of the young emperor’s new favorite concubines. Orchid finds herself chosen, but her world in the imperial palace is nothing like she’d imagined.
After the disappointment that was Katherine, I tempered my hopes for Empress Orchid. I would probably have waited a bit longer before reading it, but it was due back at the library and I had no choice. Besides that, I immediately wanted to read more about China, and particularly a book that was based on historical fact, after Under Heaven. I needn’t have worried about starting it so soon, though, because I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was completely fascinated by not only the characters portrayed within but also the entire Chinese culture that Min effortlessly depicts.
Orchid’s life in the book goes through a series of phases (and is picked up in the next volume, The Last Empress, which I have yet to read). She is first a pauper, a girl who would be beautiful if only she could actually eat once in a while or wear a pretty dress. She’s devastated by her father’s death, but that doesn’t stop her from seizing the opportunity to become the emperor’s concubine. Then she discovers life in the palace isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – after all, the emperor can have literally any woman he wants. He’s a spoiled brat convinced that he has the mandate of heaven, so Orchid (then Lady Yehonala) ceases to matter to him as soon as his gaze has drifted elsewhere.
After a bit of research on the internet, I’ve discovered that Anchee Min is actually a lot more sympathetic to Orchid than history has been. Here she’s depicted as a fairly wise woman who loves her son, loves her “husband”, and is much cleverer than anyone wants to give her credit for. I loved the politics involved in the book and I was fascinated by the extreme protocol of the Chinese court. It wasn’t as racy as I’d suspected either; the whole seduction part is a tiny fragment of the book. It’s much more about China’s collision with the rest of the world, the attitudes of the royal family to Orchid and towards the world, and about Orchid herself.
Empress Orchid was incredibly engaging and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction or China. I am definitely going to read the sequel, The Last Empress, and seek out more books about this time period in the future.
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.