China, 1760. The Emperor conquers Altishahr, a Muslim country to the west of his empire and summons a local woman from his new dominion to come to the Forbidden City as his concubine.
Meanwhile in the market of Kashgar a girl named Hidligh is kidnapped by Iparhan, a woman scarred by the Emperor’s conquest of her homeland and bent on vengeance. Iparhan offers her a deal: Hidligh will become the Emperor’s concubine, living a life of luxury. In return she will act as Iparhan’s spy.
But when Hidligh arrives in the Forbidden City, she enters a frightening new world. Every word she utters may expose her as an imposter. Iparhan is watching from the shadows, waiting to exact her revenge on the Emperor. The Empress is jealous of her new rival. And when Hidligh finally meets the Emperor, she finds herself falling in love…
To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from this book. I had seen a favorable review of it on Historical Novel Society, but the cover had a self published look and the title seemed a bit lurid. I was pleasantly surprised that it ended up being a very solid historical novel about an obscure historical figure with the added bonus that the author ended up blending the two different legends about this woman to make something that, if farfetched, was at least plausible. While it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Hidligh is able to quickly master all of the arts that a wealthy Chinese concubine would have been trained from birth in such a limited time, it is believable that she might have been given a pass being that she was foreign. Hidligh is happy with her place, a concubine who isn’t jealous, but who truly does love the Emperor. She’s a product of the time period and culture and she doesn’t expect to monopolize his affections. In fact, the jealous Empress who does covet his love ends up destroying herself for that very reason. The Empress, a terrifying figure, ultimately becomes pitiful as her attempt to oust Hidligh from the palace proves to be her undoing.
The bigger villain is undoubtedly Iparhan. Her determination to gain revenge turns her into an unsympathetic monster, one who terrifies Hidligh and ends up using even those who still love her. Maybe I should feel sorry for Iparhan, but her cruelty makes it impossible. There is nothing admirable in her all consuming plot for revenge. She is cruel and destructive to everyone she comes across and in the end has no one to blame but herself.
4 out of 5