The Fragrant Concubine

Written by Melissa Addey
Review by Christoph Fischer

“The Emperor conquers 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… Hidligh is kidnapped by a woman scarred by the conquest who offers her a deal: become the Emperor’s concubine, living a life of luxury. In return: act as a spy.”

I picked this book to review because of its unusual setting: the China of 1760. I must say that the author did a splendid job at describing the surroundings, giving us just enough detail to smell the fragrance but not overloading us with pages and pages filled with the results of showy background research. I was immediately taken with the writing style, often in short staccato to move the plot along quickly and easily able to instil the sense of drama, urgency and an intimacy with our protagonist.

Although she is often naïve, Hidligh’s narrating voice avoids the trap of stagnating in the role of a passive victim. Her inner thoughts and descriptions are fascinating and enable the plot turns and her interactions, particularly with Nurhan and the Emperor, to come off as convincing.

I did not know about the legend that forms the basis of this story but that did not matter. I enjoyed the human drama, the love and hurt, the scheming for revenge, rivalries and loyalties in the Forbidden City. Reading this novel was a moving and wonderful excursion into a different time.