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4.2 out of 5 stars117
4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 28 June 2005
I picked this book up at the airport and read the back while waiting for my husband to buy some magazines. I hadnt even finished the back cover and knew i had to have it.
The storyline centres around Orchid, a young Chinese girl in the 1800's who is chosen as one of the Emperor's Concubines and becomes one of the most powerful women in Chinese history. It follows her life from enterting into her marriage and gives you a real insight into the Forbidden City and life as a concubine.
This is an extremely enjoyable read which is written in an easy to follow style. I thoroughly enjoyed the way the author has written it, her style is fresh and keeps your attention constantly.
The character of Orchid and that of her head Eunuch are both interesting and very likeable characters. The voice of Orchid is truthful and entertaining with a hint of every emotion possible. There are tearful moments and laugh out loud snippets.
I would recommend this book happily, and would have given it 5 stars but for the fact i felt the ending was a little frustrating. The author finished on what she believes to be a high note and a good ending, but part of her writing style is to tell you parts of the future throughout the book in a casual manner (for example from the beginning Orchid tells us about being the most powerful woman in China by becoming the Empress, you dont have to read past the first chapter to see she will survive through all death threats etc in the book). However at the end i felt that a few of these casually mentioned parts of the story were not finished off and i found that frustrating. I really needed to know more! Its almost like there was going to be a second part, you were left really wanting more.
I am a big fan of Memoirs of a Geisha and Geisha of Gion, and although a totally different subject manner, i found this book equally fascinating.
Happy reading!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 April 2008
I loved it. The story of a girl overcoming hardships, set in the Forbidden City. She goes from nothing to becoming one of the most formidable women in China at the time. It's a work of fiction but is based on a real character, the Empress Dowager. This book only takes us through her early life though, before she becomes the Dowager empress and the story continues with the sequel. It was wonderful to soak up the atmosphere, pomp and ceremony from the pages and I can't wait to read what happens to her next.
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on 5 March 2006
I saw this book advertised on Richard and Judy's Bookclub and decided to get it. I'm so glad that i did, for it is a fantastic read. I found the main character Orchid to be a really strong and determined woman, who I grew to love. Her life is so tragic as a young girl, and you wonder how she and her family will survive with no money and no father to provide for them. I was horrified at the thought of her marrying her opium-addict cousin, and desperatley wanted her to fall in love with the emperor, which she did, but unfortuantley, it wasn't that simple in that time. Her fight to win the affections of the emperor and the things that she did in order to gain experience were incrediable, and the relationship between Orchid and the other empress, Nuharoo, had me turning the pages until the end. It also has some humerous parts which made me laugh out loud, like when she wanted to use the chamber pot with her maids around. I also grew to love the character of An-te-hai, and really wanted to slap her son Tun Chih at times! A truely enchanting and enlightening tale, the only reason it didn't get five as that it sometimes dragged a little.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 12 February 2006
I was drawn to this book as I have read a few others which are similar. I came to the book having quite high hopes for it, and I have to say, I was disappointed. For me the beginning was far too drawn out. While I understand that Min wanted to convey the longing and the loneliness of Orchid as she waited to be summoned by the Emporor, for me it just went on for too long. It got to the stage where I found her main character a bit whiny and irritating. This is something I do not say lightly - I have read many early Japanese memoirs by court ladies, and fiction such as THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI which is set in medieval China, and I have loved the way the authors expressed their loneliness and isolation living within a world dictated by ritual. Personally, for me, Min did not achieve the delicate balance of mixing despair with beauty and hope.
I think one of the underlying problems is that Min did not develop certain aspects of the story well enough. The plot seemed to jump from one situation to the next with little or no explicit progression. For example, I think the collapse of China around Orchid was not developed well enough - that part of the story seemed rushed and slightly forgotten, it just seemed to appear from the page when you least suspectd it. It could have been a fascinating and heart-rending description of a forgotten world and how it met it's demise, with comparisons of how life was and then what it became, yet I don't think this is what Min did. Likewise, she did not truly develop Orchid's longing for another man. Until the very end of the book, I don't think she concentrated on it enough - again it could have been a fabulous opportunity for a stark contrast between Orchid's feelings of obligation and her heart's desire opposing this.
While there are parts of the book which I loved - in places the descriptions of the Forbidden City and the ritual around it are breathtaking - but I personally felt as though the downsides to the book just outweighed the good.
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on 12 May 2004
anchee min has produced a magnificent book on a not so distant history that potrays the difference in our societies. just under 150 years ago this truly remarkable story happened, but with anchee's excellent potrayal of life under an emperor you feel like you are living the times of not just the emperor and his many wives but as his eunuchs as well. an amazingly written book that i couldn't set down until i'd finished the final chapter.
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on 15 March 2014
I read this book several years ago, and I thought it was about time for a re-read, especially since I remembered it as being a good read. What I found interesting was the differences from how I remembered it. It was shorter than I recalled, and more brutal and heart-wrenching.

What I enjoy the most about Empress Orchid, and Anchee Min’s writing in general, is her skill at description. She knows how to turn a phrase in an interesting and quirky way that grabs the attention and at the same time feeds the reader information, and it’s all done through show not tell, without info-dumping. Min’s writing style has been described as “eccentric” and awkward, but I disagree. It has a wonderful deft touch and flow to it that makes it feel natural and thoughtful.

The driving force that carries the story is, of course, Orchid herself. Min writes Orchid’s character with incredible humanity. Orchid’s story begins with hardship, which Orchid uses her wits and extraordinary luck to escape. But over time her regrets pile up, and Min portrays this with great poignancy. Yet, her feelings are ones we can all identify and empathise with. Orchid is practical, frustrated, forthright, smart, and imperfect – and I identified with her as a reader because of that. She’s definitely a character I rooted for. Life in the Forbidden City felt insular and Min succeeded in creating a real sense of cabin fever that really came through to me.

I have to admit, my knowledge of East Asian history is minimal, so I can’t testify to the accuracy of Min’s portrayal. I applaud the way she weaves relevant details into the narrative without making it clumsy or plonking it down in laborious chunks. What little I know of Cixi (Orchid) suggests she was a formidable and ruthless character, and not a terribly likable person. However, Min creates a character who is very sympathetic. Due to my lack of knowledge, I’m left wondering whether the accepted idea of Cixi is real, or whether Min’s portrait, which implies that Cixi’s reputation was exaggerated and blackened by her enemies, is a more realistic vision. A thought-provoking novel.
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on 3 April 2006
This is one of those books which will stay with you long after the final page. Whilst I enjoy reading chic lit and what I call brain candy, it is nice to be able to read something where you actually learn at the same time.
The author has a wonderful way of bringing history to life. The characters are real and actually have just that....character. The author must have done quite a bit of research to write this book and it shows.
It seems that Memoirs of a Geisha has been read by a number of reviewers here - me included. In fact I read Memoirs first and looked forward to continuing the Eastern theme with Empress, I wasn't disappointed.
The only reason I didn't give this book five stars is down to the fact that there's just a tad more background then dialogue - but that's not to take away from the book's overall excellence. If you fancy something enjoyable yet educational at the same time, try this
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on 16 March 2006
I found the book to be fascinating and educational. The descriptive style of Min's writing makes the characters come alive. The imagery is beautiful!!
The characters are surprisingly sad, amongst the sumptious surroundings of the forbiddon city the lives of it's inhabitants are dictated by the one purpose of ensuring the emporer concieves a suitable heir.
I would recommend this book. It is interesting, shocking, beautiful and many other wonderful things!
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on 21 May 2004
I thought this book was excellent. I read it in a day, from the first page you just can't put it down. Annchee Min writes superbly. The book is factual so you gain not only a fab read but also a history lesson!
The plot is excellent, gaving the reader insight into the life of china with emperors, thousnds of concubines, the colonialist rampage, corruption, the whole system and values of the people...
Through Annchee Mins writing you really associate with Orchid, how she comes from nothing to becoming a wife of the Emperor of China. But once attinting this highly sought after position she realises her life is now within a golden cage, lined with flawless diamons! Every step she treads must be with upmost caution as she could get her head chopped off or worse. With her prowess Orchid competes with five other wives and thousnds of concubines to gain attention from her Husband. The story continues with the downfall of china, the opium wars, and seizing or Hong Kong. Can Empress Orchid keep her head on her shoulders (literally), produce an heir to the throne, battle with the other wives and eunuchs.
I can't recommend this book enough, it is a MUST READ!!
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on 17 July 2015
Having grown up in Communist China and emigrated to the States only in her twenties, Anchee Min has carved out a niche as an author of historical fiction with a strong Chinese flavour. She writes in English - which she famously claims she learned from watching Sesame Street - but with firsthand experience of Chinese culture. In Empress Orchid, Min turns her attention to Empress Dowager Cixi. A fascinating historical figure; Cixi ruled for much of the 19th century; a era of wrenching change for China. For Cixi, this was a remarkable period of overcoming humble origins and widespread sexism to achieve supreme power. Moreover, her rule encompassed China's final years as an imperial nation; the ruling Qing dynasty crumbling in the face of internal strife and conflict with technologically superior Western powers.

Empress Orchid's premise, then, is wonderful. It is a terrible shame than Min does not do it justice. Written and published first in English, one imagines this is a book intended for Western audiences. Yet I assumed at first that Empress Orchid was a translation; and not a terribly accomplished one. Min's prose is pedestrian at best; clunky at worst. It is littered with odd turns of phrase, and Confucian idioms whose meaning is not apparent, or explained. Such is the strength of Cixi's biography, it would not take more than a capable writer to make it sing. Yet Min fumbles some key emotional beats, whilst spending far too long dwelling on Cixi's isolation and unhappiness. Despite this being a supposedly revisionist history of Cixi - aiming to rehabilitate her historical image - she finishes the book quite unlikeable.

What makes up for Empress Orchid's narrative deficiencies is Min's painstaking historical research. Peking's Forbidden City emerges as the novel's most memorable character. Its stifling rituals and brutal intrigues are brought to life vividly; so decadent and self-absorbed is the heart of imperial China, it beggars belief that the country was ruled as successfully as it was for centuries. Where Min's writing shades into excess, it has the feel of Peake's fantasy Gormenghast. Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.

Essentially the first half of a novel - the duology is completed by The Last Empress - Min makes no attempt to round off her story. Readers unprepared for the novel's abrupt ending may therefore be disappointed. Despite Empress Orchid's problems, however, I will persevere with the sequel. One may wish for a more accomplished writer at the helm. but the subject matter is too fascinating to jump ship halfway through.
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