Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

July Books 10) The Last Empress, by Anchee Min

It was the spring of 1868 and rain soaked the soil. Blue winter tulips in my garden began to rot. I was thirty-four years old. My nights were filled with the sound of crickets. The smell of incense fluttered over from the Palace Temple, where the senior concubines lived.
This is a historical novel framed as the autobiography of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi (normally transcribed as Cixi these days; she'd have written it 慈禧) from her consolidation of power in 1863 to her death in 1908. I knew almost nothing of Chinese history in this period (or indeed any); I had encountered Tzu-hsi previously in Flashman and the Dragon, where the hero (inevitably) conducts a love affair with her in 1860, before this book is set. I found the historical detail fascinating but, alas, some of the most dramatic incidents turn out to have been invented (or at least elaborated) by the author; I was impressed by the sense of a woman trying to prevent the disintegration of her regime against the twin threats of a series of weak emperors and external pressure from the Europeans and Americans. There are also some lovely descriptive set-pieces. Unfortunately it didn't really grab me emotionally, and towards the end got a bit rushed - I was simply confused by the account of the Boxer Rebellion. Also I had not realised that this is the sequel to Empress Orchid which describes her rise to power; I will look out for it - struggle to get to the top is generally a more interesting read than struggle to stay at the top!
Tags: bookblog 2013, poc
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