The Last Empress by Anchee Min


Mark Haddon

"Empires crumble, hearts are broken"

The Times



Last year I read 'Empress Orchid', Min's first novel about Princess Yehonala, also known as Tzu Hsi and, more commonly, Empress Orchid.  'The Last Empress' is a follow-up to this novel and returns to Orchid's life in the Forbidden City only a mere year or two after the death of her husband Hsien Feng.  Both her and the Empress, Hsien Feng's first wife Nuharoo are acting regents for the new Emperor, Tung Chih.

Initially I found this book difficult to get in to.  Compared to the first novel, the plot seemed a little more scattered and much faster paced.  It was also less descriptive, although this is likely to be because much of Orchid's life is well described in 'Empress Orchid'.  The rapid pace of the novel can also be attributed to the nature of the book.  Whereas the first novel spans no more than 10 or so years of Orchid's life (her marriage to the Emperor and relationship with him until his death), 'The Last Empress' covers Orchid's life from her twenties until she takes her last breath at over 70 years old.

The plot becomes easier to follow once one becomes accustomed to the writing style.  Given the amount of time covered in the mere 415 pages, it doesn't read like a chronology.  At times it was difficult to know exactly what exact year events were occuring in.  Rather the dates were implied by ages, number of years since a certain event etc.  This worked very well since it was not pivotal to the plot to know exactly when things occured.

It saddened me in the book that Orchid had to endure so much.  The powerful woman that she was, she was often used as the scape goat or point of blame for many a failed idea.  In an empire dominated by men, she spent her life supported and pushing a failing line on Emperors, all too weak to do what was necessary.  Orchid's desire through the entire book is to do the right things for China, but she is regularly tested by having to choose between her country and her son's.  Her maternal feelings often lead her down the wrong path.  Adding to her suffering was the shared love between her and Yung Lu. Her closest confident, both Orchid and Yung Lu channeled their feelings into forming a powerful and loyal friendship.

This book was both enjoyable and interesting.  Perhaps what astounded me the most was something I missed when reading 'Empress Orchid' - the book is based around fact.  Aside from providing me with hours of enjoyment, this book has also spurred me to learn a little more of China's history!



Reviewed on 01/05/2008 by Angela


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ISBN: 0747593167

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