Friday, November 16, 2007

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (3/5 stars)

This is a different book from what I normally read. I heard an interview with the author of this book on the radio and it sounded really interesting. I downloaded it from audible as an audio book.

This book is a fictional account of the rise to power of the Dowager Empress of China Tzu Hsi. Tzu Hsi starts out as a girl from an impoverished family. She is the daughter of a governer of a very poor province. She travels to Peking with her family to bury her father and ends up living in squalor with her "10th uncle", mother and siblings. When her uncle tries to force Orchid (Tzu Hsi) to marry his mentally disabled son. She decides to try and compete for a position as a concubine for the Emperor.

Not only does she end up making the initial cut, she ends up being one of the six wives of the emperor. The trials they endure to achieve this position is interesting. She is not lost in the mix of the 3,000 concubines the emperor also has available to him. Orchid ends up having a son for the emperor and rises to be the most powerful woman in China. This book is very sympathetic to Orchid and shows how she struggled with the isolation of living in the forbidden city, how she had to deal with the treachery of the other wifes, and how she had to work out the scheming of the eunuchs. Her struggles to raise her son to be a good man and not a spoiled imperial brat really resonated with me. How to you raise a divine being to have good manners?

The quality of the audiobook was pretty bad. The reader noisily swallows frequently and it is pretty distracting. The book itself is of mediocre quality. I know that Anchee Min has just recently perfected her English in writing this book. Unfortunately it tells. At one point the author mentions people being "hanged" I think the more correct usage is hung. There are a lot of little things like that in the book. The other thing about the book I didn't like was how the story looses focus and meanders sometimes. You would be reading about a plot in the present then all of the sudden the book would read "At many times in the future....." The author would then digress about a time in the future and sometimes it was difficult to tell when she came back to the present and resumed the story.

I am not sure how historically accurate this book is supposed to be but it is a fascinating topic and a fascinating look into Chinese culture and history. I had a history teacher who told me that "for anyone to fully understand the culture and history of China, they would have to be a genius." Reading this book helps me to understand that teacher's statement more fully.

Some things that I learned about China that were very striking were:

- How little deaths meant to the Emperor. At one point there are 4000 some odd deaths because of a flood and it is mentioned in passing to the Emperor. He is concerned but not overly concerned; that is just a small fraction of the Chinese population.

- How behind in technology the Chinese are compared to the rest of the world in this time frame. The Chinese are trying to sword fight their way through canons and guns...not a pretty fight.

- How isolated the Forbidden City was from the rest of Chinese society. There are people starving in Peking and the wealth of the Forbidden City is unimaginable; there is just such a huge contrast in wealth.

- The very accepted belief of the Emperor as, not a person, but a divine entity.

- The huge impact tradition had on the Chinese and Manchurian culture. It is unbelievable how much work goes into some of the Imperial Rituals.

Overall the book is worth reading because of the interesting subject matter. The quality of the writing isn't great and I would definitely not listen to it on audio book.

Here is a link to the normal book on amazon:

Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher (4/5 stars)

This is the third book in the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. This series is quite different from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series but it is just as good. I started reading these books a bit reluctantly since the epic fantasy genre is very different from the paranormal alternate reality genre of the Dresden Files. This series proves that Jim Butcher is just all around a great writer.

The only problem I have with these books is that in the previous books I didn't personally find any of the main characters extremely likable or engaging. They are all okay and fun to read about but none of them really "spoke" to me.

This book changed some of that. Tavi is sent off to join a newly formed legion where he is supposed to be spying for High Lord Gaius. A tragedy kills off all of the leaders of the legion and Tavi is suddenly the ranking officer of the legion. This proves interesting considering Tavi's lack of military background. Amara is sent to do a daring rescue of some captured nobles and is forced to rely on the morally questionable Lady Aquitaine for assistance.

I like Tavi a lot more in this book. I also really like Kitai's part in the book. Kitai is probably one of my favorite characters; I love her wit and daring.

This book was a fun read. It is very fast paced with a lot of action. Tavi takes some great steps toward growing up and becoming a true legendary hero. The book kept me interested and kept me up late at night. Still when all is said and done though I feel like something is lacking in this series in general.

I am not sure what that thing is. I don't know if it's my lack of being able to relate to the characters or if it's just that I keep hearing Harry Dresden in the back of my head while I read these.

Anyway, it's a good book and if you've been reading the series, you have got to read this book. If you haven't been reading the series I would highly recommend it. It is well-written and entertaining. For some reason though I just don't get extremely jumping-for-joy excited about these books and this book is no exception.

Here is a link to the book on amazon: