Talk about story arc: poor girl from rural China auditions for a job as royal concubine, winds up as emperor's wife number four, gives birth to the "last Emperor," rules China as regent for 46 years. The fascinating, implausible life of Tsu Hsi, or "Orchid," was reviled by the revolutionary Chinese, but here it receives a sympathetic treatment from Min (Red Azalea ; Becoming Madame Mao ), who once again brilliantly lifts the public mask of a celebrated woman to reveal a contradictory character. Sexually assertive, intellectually ambitious, socially striving, Min's Orchid is also "isolated, tense, and in some vague but very real way, dissatisfied." Even after giving birth to the emperor's only son, Orchid feels trapped by the stultifying imperial rituals and persecuted by the other residents of the Forbidden City: six other royal wives, 3,000 invisible concubines and 2,000 scheming eunuchs. In addition to these powerful distractions, she has to discipline her overindulged son, outmaneuver the ruthless politician Su Shun (who wants her buried alive when the emperor dies) and advise the ailing emperor how to fend off both the Boxers and the Western "barbarians." Min, herself a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution, has done a prodigious amount of on-site research to capture the glorious, hopeless last days of the Ching dynasty. At times her writing is textbook-flat, and she sometimes loses track of her teeming cast of characters (for example, Orchid's dangerous mother-in-law and mentally ill sister). But readers will be enthralled by the gorgeously woven cultural tapestry and the psychologically astute portrait of the empress—a talented girl from the provinces who married (way) up. (Feb. 3)
Forecast: Empress Orchid does for 19th-century China what Becoming Madame Mao did for the People's Republic and stands a good chance of matching the latter's success. If it does, readers will clamor for Min's promised sequel (the novel ends when Orchid comes to power) and the film prospects (rights have been optioned by Oliver Stone—imagine Bertolucci's The Last Emperor with a conspiracy twist) will look even better. Fourteen-city author tour.