February 16, 2004 12:00 PM

By Anchee Min



“A tragedy foreshadows good luck,” says one character to Orchid, the heroine of this lush novel set in 1852 China. The prophecy bears out, for Orchid is soon plucked to become one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s seven wives. The novel is based on the true story of the 17-year-old who traded poverty for the ornate confines of the emperor’s Forbidden City guarded by 2,000 eunuchs.

The luxury of the palace barely disguises the treachery it takes to survive there, and Min superbly chronicles Orchid’s savvy attempts to win the emperor’s heart so she can bear him an heir. History has blamed Orchid for the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty. Min, however, evokes Orchid as a smart politician and demanding mother. While the book’s historical research impresses, Min’s prose brings immediacy to the period. One woman possesses a “scorpion mouth but a tofu heart.” The words also aptly describe this book’s unforgettable heroine.

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