cover image My Last Empress

My Last Empress

Da Chen. Crown, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-307-38130-9

Chen's (Brothers) 19th-century tale of obsession explores the line between love and madness. After Samuel Pickens's first love, Annabelle, perishes in a fire a month into their adolescent romance, her spirit stays with him through Yale and beyond, an invisible partner who reigns over him. Later, an adult Pickens acquires a position as tutor to the teenage emperor of China's Qing Dynasty and travels to the country where his beloved spent her childhood. There, he finds a royal palace overrun with corrupt eunuchs and led by a callow and unprepared emperor. Pickens is soon befriended by his effeminate pupil, but the tutor becomes enamored with 13-year-old Empress Qiu Rong, fourth wife of the emperor and Annabelle's doppelg%C3%A4nger. Their ensuing perverse love affair is complicated by the schemes of various parties, but together they navigate the traps set for them, seeking assistance from a local warlord and other shady individuals. Steeped in the language and colors of an Asia long gone, this florid, Lolita-esque tale focuses too narrowly on the narrator's lost love and misses its potential to be a sweeping historical epic. Agent: Alex Glass, Trident Media Group. (Oct.)