Recommended for: anyone who appreciates culture, powerful women, political intrigue, and historical fiction
I picked up Empress Orchid out of a library’s free box while I was on a camping trip. Then I forgot completely about it. I’d grabbed it because I’m trying to read more books by people with demographics other than mine, and this one certainly fit the bill, plus, I liked how the image of Orchid, the protagonist, was offset on the cover, implying instability and discord. Plus the cover was shiny, and as an ape, I’m drawn to shiny things. But, this book sat forgotten until I just wanted to read something different. Then, it did it’s job far better than I could ever imagine.
If I’d have known I’d enjoy the worldbuilding, the culture, and the intrigue presented in Empress Orchid, I would have opened the cover that first day I got this book! It’s a truly fantastic read which totally immerses you in a world on the brink of change.
If I had to assign any theme to this book, it’s “playing roles”. Everyone and everything in this book has an expected role to play, established by some 5,000 years of rigid tradition. Peasants are peasants, bannermen are bannermen, emperors are emperors, eunuchs are eunuchs, and concubines are concubines. Above all: China is China. But, while the characters struggle with their desires to either fit their mold or break it, the invasion of the West–largely happening in the background–begins to make it clear that these roles can no longer be maintained. People always resist change, and this book is all about that struggle.
Empress Orchid is exactly what I want from historical fiction: it’s an entertaining novel, first and foremost, but it fills me with questions about that real moment in history, and I know I’m going to spend a lot of time now pouring over non-fiction books about the same period. At the same time, this book is meticulously researched. At any given paragraph, some aspect of culture or architecture is being detailed, but not in a heavy-handed way, but one in which the author allows herself to be in awe and easily shares that experience with the readers. Meanwhile, the author clearly understands the differences between imperial Chinese and Manchu culture from that of a Western reader, and she encourages you to leave your cultural expectations at the door.
Many concepts involving sexuality and gender emerge in a fascinating perspective, because there are rigid (although completely gender-imbalanced) rules in that society which are quite different than we experience, however whether the characters like it or not, their collision with the West is forcing changes, and many of them are unexpected.
The ending of this book seemed to happen quickly, and I was a little disappointed in that because I wanted to stay in this world much longer, but then I saw that it’s the first book in a planned trilogy, so I can’t wait to find out what’s next!