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!