shortlisted for Book of the Month
"Melissa Addey has a way with words. She uses them to describe worlds which are unfamiliar and she paints a vivid picture. There is no waste with her writing; every word is carefully chosen and placed to assist with the world-building, without ever getting in the way or disturbing the narrative flow."
The Forbidden City Series
“The most beautiful garden in the world. The man who built it. The woman who had to leave it. China, the 1720s. Giuseppe Castiglione, a promising and ambitious Italian painter, is recruited by the Jesuits to serve the Emperor of China. But his painting style is rejected as inauspicious. Meanwhile, Niuhuru, a grey-eyed, too-tall girl is chosen as a concubine to a minor prince and sent to live in the Garden of Perfect Brightness, where Giuseppe meets her when he is tasked with turning the Garden into a wonderland for the Qianlong Emperor. But as the Garden changes and Niuhuru is swept upwards to ever-greater importance, is something precious being lost? And will either of them ever be able to admit to their true feelings for one another?”
Melissa Addey has a way with words. She uses them to describe worlds which are unfamiliar and she paints a vivid picture. There is no waste with her writing; every word is carefully chosen and placed to assist with the world-building, without ever getting in the way or disturbing the narrative flow. I feel that I have learned so much about the world of the Chinese emperors and their concubines from reading this book, and the images of the gardens and palaces will stay with me for a long time.
Giuseppe is quite an arrogant character when we first meet him, but he mellows. Niuhuru is an innocent child when we meet her, but she grows up, perhaps faster than she would have wished. The secondary characters are deftly sketched, too, so that in a few short sentences we get to know them and their personality. I’d have liked to see a little more of Laura, Giuseppe’s apprentice, but the tight Point of View, where the story is only told in the first person by the main two characters, did not allow for this. Some scenes, with the description of the plants and trees in the garden, are languid in tone, while in others there is real drama. Every time I had to leave the book, even for a short while, I was desperate to get back to it and keen to know what would happen to Guiseppe and Niuhuru. Their world is beautiful, although danger stalks the palaces in an empire where to get to a position of grandeur, princes must eliminate their rivals.
The love scenes are touching and full of - mainly - unspoken passion. The scenes between the two are beautifully written, and there are moments of real poignancy. By the time Niuhuru becomes really high-status they have become adept at sending messages through conversation with others, and when they receive and understand those cryptic messages the moment of understanding is sweet and tenderly portrayed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the only thing that disappointed slightly was the rather abrupt ending. I understand that this is the first in a series, which makes sense and had I had the sequel to hand, I probably would have carried on reading immediately.
© Annie Whitehead
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