"Ms Addey is adept at painting the scenery, placing her characters precisely in their time frame and place in the world, and then describing their actions so that we don't so much read about them as see them up close. Her world-building is superb."
Forbidden City Series #4
18th century China. In a devastating breach of etiquette, the Empress of China cuts off her hair and is exiled by a furious Emperor to ‘the cold palace’. Historians still do not know what caused her to take this step.
Ula Nara is a happy sixteen-year-old, in love and betrothed. But before she can be married, she must attend the Imperial Daughters’ Draft. When she is chosen as a bride to the heir to the throne, her beloved vows to become a monk, while Ula Nara must face a lifetime of regret. Determined to make her pain worth something, she aims for the pinnacle of success: to become Empress. But perhaps being an Empress is not worth as much as she thought and happiness may lie in the simpler things.
Regular readers of Discovering Diamonds' reviews will know that I have read a lot of Melissa Addey's books and enjoyed every one of them. This is no exception. Yet reading this book with a review in mind put me in a bit of a quandary, which I'll explain shortly. But first, to the book. As usual, Ms Addey is adept at painting the scenery, placing her characters precisely in their time frame and place in the world, and then describing their actions so that we don't so much read about them as see them up close. Her world-building is superb.
I've 'met' Ula Nara before, and in earlier books she is presented as the enemy, a bitter woman who takes any opportunity to 'dish the dirt' on her rivals, often for no apparent reason. Here, she tells her own story. The environment is strange: women are chosen to become the emperors' wives and concubines and live a sort of cloistered life. They make friends and forge alliances where they can, and intimacy is found in unusual circumstances. Bereft, forced to leave her life and love behind and enter the Forbidden City, Ula Nara finds that comfort and closeness can take many forms. Whether Ms Addey is writing about a lesbian affair, or that between an imperial consort and a eunuch, she ensures that the scenes are delicate; full of love, tenderness and - oddly - despair, in equal measure.
And now to my quandary: at one moment in The Cold Palace, Ula Nara witnesses an intimate moment between Lady Niuhuru (the emperor's primary consort) and a Jesuit priest. This becomes important later on and answers a question I'd had after reading The Garden of Perfect Brightness. (In fact, it was a real 'a-ha!' moment for me.) We also see Ula Nara interacting with the main characters from The Consorts, and at this point I made a note that really readers should read these two books first before approaching The Cold Palace. But, towards the end of the book, the woman known as the Fragrant Concubine makes an appearance, having a radical effect on Ula Nara's life and I realised that, although I haven't read The Fragrant Concubine, it made no difference to my enjoyment and understanding of The Cold Palace. So, should I recommend that readers start somewhere else rather than here? I solved my quandary by deciding that no, because while The Cold Palace can be viewed as a companion piece to the other other novels in the series, it doesn't really matter where you start; such is the quality of Ms Addey's writing, and skill with inter-weaving story-lines, that each book can be read as a standalone whilst knowledge of any other books in the series provides deeper insight.
In other words, if you know what's happened in the other books, you'll have those 'a-ha' moments but if you don't, it really won't detract from the main narrative.
Ula Nara is a deeply unhappy albeit self-aware woman and at first I found it harder to sympathise with her than with some other women featured in the series. Yes, she's bitter about being forced to leave her betrothed, but the other women are in similar situations and they react differently, less viciously indeed. But herein lies the strength of the Forbidden City series, for even though these women live their lives behind high walls, sequestered, we are shown that, human nature being what it is, people react differently to the same set of circumstances. By the end of the book I was almost cheering for Ula Nara and the closing pages left me with a little tear in my eye.
© Annie Whitehead
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