The Last Empress by Anchee Min Bloomsbury, HK$176 Was the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi - who executed court rivals and drained China's coffers as she plotted her own rise - simply the victim of bad publicity? In her new novel, The Last Empress, Anchee Min picks up where she left off in Empress Orchid, presenting a revisionist look at Tzu Hsi's years of power, her loneliness, sacrifices and strength. Chinese scholars have long been fascinated by Tzu Hsi, traditionally depicting her as manipulative, ruthless and greedy. 'She was a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue,' says a communist textbook quoted by the author. Min has chosen a fresh point of view, portraying the ageing monarch as a loving mother and patriot who reluctantly retains power. Unfortunately, although the material is rich, her characterisation of this fascinating woman feels thin, hampered by stodgy prose that does little to explain Tzu Hsi's motivation. As the mother of the emperor, Tzu Hsi assumes the throne until her son, Tung Chih, reaches maturity. She watches with despair as he squanders his life, frequenting brothels instead of fulfilling his court duties, telling her 'the business of running the nation makes [him] sick, period'. When Tung Chih dies of a venereal disease at the age of 19, Tzu Hsi chooses her young nephew, Guang-hsu, as his successor, adopting him as her son. The hairpin twists and turns of political machination form the core of this sedate novel, as the dowager empress struggles to consolidate power and determine the loyalty of her ministers. Unfortunately, even the most ardent fan of late Qing-dynasty imperial history may have trouble following the complex plot. Tzu Hsi must navigate a court filled with intrigue, where bribes are exchanged and servants spy on her. When her favourite eunuch, An-te-hai, mysteriously dies, she finds herself without a confidante: her 'heart was shattered, and the pieces were pickled in sadness'. Her lonely life is magnified by a lack of romance - Tzu Hsi pines for the courtesan Yung Lu, but duty prevents her from satisfying her desire. 'We are ladies of masks,' she tells her daughter-in-law, Lan. 'Cloaking ourselves in divine glory and sacrifice is our destiny.' Then the feeble Guang-hsu falls under the spell of wily political reformer Kang Yu-wei, furthering Tzu Hsi's resolve to retain power. She navigates the growing conflict with Japan, Russia, France, England and Germany and, after an attempt on her life, sentences Kang to death (although, to her chagrin, he escapes to Japan). Min presents Tzu Hsi as a weary leader who longs to retire, but whose sense of responsibility and fear of a crumbling China keep her on the throne. The author strives to explain Tzu Hsi's many follies: even the Summer Palace's extravagant marble boat, which the empress diverted military funds to build, is dismissed as an unfair attack. 'To justify further foreign encroachments in China,' says Tzu Hsi, 'I had to be made into a monster.' Min's portrayal of Tzu Hsi is too one-dimensional to be convincing, and the monarch's voice is too moralistic to engage the reader. Intriguing glimpses of court life suggest Min's talent as a novelist, but the book reads more like a volume of history than a work of fiction, and the fascinating political intrigue is rendered dry. Plagued throughout his life by illness, the young emperor Guang-hsu eventually dies, leaving the ageing Tzu Hsi to choose a new ruler of China. Once again sacrificing her own desires, she rises from her deathbed to proclaim the infant Puyi emperor. With the throne weakened by the Boxer Rebellion, Puyi's reign lasted only three years before China quickly disintegrated into a 'dark time of warlords and lawlessness'. Although Tzu Hsi was reviled as a 'corrupt, besotted, reptilian female dictator,' Min suggests that it was her strength, determination and self-sacrifice that held the country together. Perhaps so, yet one can't help but feel that this kinder, gentler Tzu Hsi makes for rather lacklustre reading. Selflessness may be virtuous, but evil and intrigue sell books.