Empress Orchid, formerly known as Lady Yehonala, has truly become the ruler of all China. Despite her desire to retire, she’s forced to train more than one young emperor, and regularly finds herself resuming rule. She faces opposition from virtually all sides, not only from within the court and from the public but also from a variety of hostile nations who wish to invade and capture parts of China. Meanwhile, she’s forced to deny herself the love she desperately craves as she watches her empire slowly begin to collapse.
This is the follow-up to Empress Orchid, which if you’ll recall (or click back to my review) I really enjoyed. I loved the Chinese atmosphere, the intricacy and intrigue of the court, and Orchid herself. I liked this book less. Orchid’s position, while not completely firm throughout the book, is now relatively solid and she finds herself instead dealing with an ever changing rotation of men and women who come in and out of her life.
This is an incredibly detailed time in China and I felt that, for my tastes, the book rushed through it in the interest of getting to the end of Orchid’s life. It’s also darker in character, if that’s even possible, simply because history in China in this period is very dark. The empire is clearly collapsing, and it’s obvious even if you aren’t aware of the general history of China. Foreign powers are regularly invading, even to the point of leveling the empress’s home and driving her out to exile. Still, we unfortunately miss a lot of the background history going on in China at this point simply because she isn’t there, which makes it harder to get a complete picture of the era, and means the reader feels a bit detached.
It’s clear that her way of life is unsustainable, which should lend an air of nostalgia to the work, but instead it just feels corrupt. Even though Orchid is suffering, and it’s painful to see China fall, one can’t help but feel that a better government is genuinely necessary, even if not the one that China eventually ended up with. Orchid can’t even speak with the Western leaders and hardly has any idea of her own country – how is she meant to rule, let alone the privileged boys who are called emperor and then completely spoiled with no responsibilities?
Overall, though, I still enjoyed Min’s writing and I enjoyed The Last Empress overall. I didn’t feel it was quite as strong as the first in this duology, but it hasn’t put me off reading the rest of her work at all. I’m at present especially interested in delving more into a wider history of China in this period; I think it’s absolutely fascinating, so don’t expect my China fixation to stop any time soon!