The best romance stories are always the most fearless. You know them when you read them: stories by authors who dare to dig deep into the agony of obsessive and destructive love. With My Last Empress, Da Chen has told another of those bold, relentless tales of ecstatic suffering, set against a vibrant and immersive historical backdrop.

In 19th century America, Samuel Pickens leads a privileged life as a young scholar, but his world is consumed with passion when he meets the exotic and entrancing Annabelle. Their romance is driven by the hunger and energy of their youth, but when tragedy strikes, Samuel is left without his great love. His search for new meaning in his life eventually leads him to China, where he takes a job as a tutor in the Imperial Palace. There he meets a young girl who is a stunning mirror image of his lost love, and quickly develops an obsession with her. As his desire grows, his transgressions become an ever-greater threat to the emperor, and Samuel must attempt to avoid doom in a second all-consuming romance.

What comes through from the first page, from the first sentence, is the pure exuberant emotion of Chen’s prose. He’s a gifted stylist, but his words carry none of the coldness that many other expert sentence-crafters fall prey to. This is a heavy, unapologetically emotional book from the beginning, and that makes it a personal experience for the reader.

The backdrop of Imperial China also adds depth to a powerful tale. Chen pulls you in from the moment Samuel sets foot in Asia, and sweeps you away with visions of a bygone age of royal extravagance. It’s another layer of beauty in an already gorgeously descriptive book.

Fans of sweeping historical romance like Gone with the Wind and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, as well as fans of transgressive sexual explorations like Nabokov’s Lolita, will find another engrossing story in My Last Empress. It’s both moving and frightening, dark and hopeful, gut-wrenching and inspiring. Chen has delivered another powerful work in an already stellar career.

 

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