For evoking a sense of time and place and mood, I give this story 5 stars. It is beautifully written and very well read by the narrator. However, there really was no STORY or conflict or surprises. All the grandparents were sage and wise. All the parents were happily married. All the kids were good and succesful and followed their dreams. And any potentially messy plot points were neatly resolved with a kind word or two from someone, or a convenient outside event. As a mood study of Japan just before and after WWII, this book is very successful. As a story, it is not.
I couldn't finish this story. The narrator was the worst ever, for all the reasons noted by other reviewers. About a quarter of the way through, I turned my player to 2X speed and that helped a lot--speeded up the narrative and dampened the mouth noises. But that still didn't save the story itself and I stopped listening about two-thirds of the way through. The story is slow and boring. I got tired of the endless LISTS of things that passed for descriptive details. The characters are flat, unsympathetic and whiny. Empress Orchid herself is alternately naive and a know-it-all, a very irritating combination. We don't know much about what the real Empress Orchid thought, but I highly doubt she supervised the emperor's diet to make sure it had "roughage and fresh fruits and vegetables" and "worked side-by-side with the emperor as equal partners." These are 21st century ideas that have no place in a 19th century novel. I know this is historical FICTION and as such, the author has license to mess with the facts somewhat. But this novel revises so many well-known facts that it is a story killer for me. For example, it is known that the British burned the Summer Palace in response to the Chinese capturing and gruesomely torturing to death two British officials. However in Empress Orchid, the British officials are captured and then released unharmed but the British still burn the Summer Palace. To me, this was a disappointing simplification of the event. All parties acted badly and it would have made a much better story if the author had given us a more complicated scenario including the capture, decision and motivation for torture, reactions to the Brits' deaths, etc. As it is, there is a throwaway line about their release, and then everyone is shocked and saddened at the burning of Summer Palace and simply cannot understand why the Barbarians did it. This is such a glaring revision that it makes me doubt the authenticity of any of the "facts" in the story.
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