The Palace Of Heavenly Pleasure by Adam Williams Hodder & Stoughton $155 This is a rollicking monster of a book, a 700-page return to the classical genre of historical novels set in stirring times. It's a tale of love, sex, betrayal, conspiracy and hatred. At the same time, it's a valuable and scholarly examination of what history has come to term the Boxer Rebellion. On both levels, as a good yarn and as fascinating political detail, this is a compelling read. The story is set in the imaginary city of Shishan, where dusty Manchurian plains merge with rolling Mongolian steppe. The 20th century is about to dawn and the tiny foreign community of traders, missionaries and railwaymen live largely unaware in the looming shadow of immense tragedy. Among the peasants of north China, restive stirrings are causing a fast-rising tide of anger. Fuelled by superstition and stoked by the arrogance of some Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts, feelings are running high. Among the many triads, secret societies, political factions and peasant movements, one surging presence is the Fists of Righteous Harmony. Most of the Europeans in China don't know the significance of the name nor the cause of zealotry, and they don't really care. They are in for a rude awakening. Shishan is ruled by the iron fist of Mandarin Liu Daguang. He's from Hunan and four decades earlier he served with the imperial armies fighting the fanatics of the Taiping rebellion. The Mandarin knows well the bloody fury of peasant uprisings. The Europeans may live in blissful ignorance; Liu is aware of the rising unrest. While some medical missionaries selflessly treat the sick bodies of Shishan people, other demented religious fanatics seek their souls at any price. As Christians, the converts refuse to pay for the upkeep of traditional temples, funds which support neighbourhood social programmes. This fuels more resentment and mistrust. Into this brooding atmosphere comes Helen Frances Delamere, an English teenage beauty whose startling red hair immediately has her known to Chinese as 'The Fox Lady'. Her father is an amiable old soak who heads the foreign business community. With his cronies, mostly Chinese merchants, he spends much of his spare time boozing and carousing in the Palace of Heavenly Pleasure. This expansive brothel is more a house of horrors than a place of joy. The girls are kidnapped into sexual slavery, or sold by grasping relatives. Once ensconced in the rambling structure, they have no future. Survival depends on not incurring the wrath of the madam, a dreadful creature named Mother Liu, or her depraved son, Ren Ren. Almost as noisome is Manners, an English adventurer cashiered from his regiment who has been adviser to the Japanese military and now arrives to work for the railroad. Toil is not his game; he's involved in arms trading between renegade Russians, Japanese officers and Chinese officials. As the story unfolds, the rising Boxer tide is explained by foreigners arguing about unrest. Some are fluent in Chinese customs and language, others ignorant and arrogant. 'Old wives' tales,' proclaims one young Englishman. Not so, cautions an old foreign sage, pointing out that scores of millions perished in the Taiping uprising because a Hakka from Guangdong convinced himself he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Incidents quickly become more violent. Turbaned, sashed and armed with crude weapons, the Boxers swell in numbers and boldness. Unsettling rumours of massacres of converts all over north China and persecution of missionaries and murder of foreigners penetrate Shishan. Factual, too, is the description of how foreigners were dragged into the town square to be decapitated in front of jeering crowds. Few people are as qualified to write a saga based on the Boxer tragedy as Adam Williams, the head of Jardine Matheson. The former South China Morning Post reporter is an acknowledged expert on Chinese affairs. He also has personal links with the time and era in which the book is set: one great-grandfather was a Scottish medical missionary in Changchun who narrowly escaped from fanatical Boxers when they took that city. For the century since then, Williams' family has lived in China and Hong Kong. This gripping story gives insights into how such a movement emerged 100 years ago, appearing from nowhere, exploding with a massive rage, almost toppling an empire, then fading abruptly.