Finished February 4
The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure by Adam Williams
This chunky novel (704 pages) begins in 1899 and takes us through 1902. The setting is China. A small bit of the story is set in Peking (now Beijing), and the rest in a fictional smaller community called Shishan north and east of Peking, along the planned railway route and just beyond where the railway reaches as the book begins.
The foreign community in Shishan is small. There is a Scottish medical missionary, Dr. Edward Airton with his wife Nellie and their two younger children Jenny and George. Their two older children are at boarding school in Scotland. There is an American missionary, Septimus Millward, with his wife Laetitia, and their 8 children, with Hiram as the oldest at fifteen. There are two Italian Catholic nuns, Sister Elena and Sister Caterina, who now work with the Airtons as their priest died recently and has yet to be replaced. They still travel out to surrounding villages where they have converts. There is Englishman Frank Delamere, a representative of a chemical company, and German Hermann Fischer, chief of the railway building project.
Joining them soon after the story begins are Tom Cabot, an assistant to Frank as the business grows; Helen Frances Delamere, Frank's nineteen year old daughter who has recently finished school; and Henry Manners, recently of the British army and now attached to the railway project.
Helen Frances was escorted on the ship over by Tom and the two became close, getting engaged along the way. Tom is a good solid man, but Helen Frances finds herself strangely drawn to the dashing Henry with his adventurous past.
Frank's Chinese associates and Dr. Airton urge him to rein in some of his less gentlemanly behaviour once they find out his daughter is coming. These include excessive drinking and regular trips to the local upscale brothel, the Palace of Heavenly Pleasure, where he has grown attached to a young Chinese prostitute.
Local Chinese officials from the military leader Major Lin to local merchants regularly hold meetings at the Palace as well as participate in extracurricular activities.
As Tom gets to know his market and partners, and Helen Frances tours the area escorted by the handsome Henry, the political tension grows as the Boxers, a recent rebellious group with a tie to martial arts and superstitions, grow in influence.
Of course this story involves the Boxer Rebellion and their wholesale slaughter of foreigners and anyone they deem involved with them, from Christian converts to tradespeople. We see how the various players in the foreign and local communities are affected and the actions they take or are forced to take.
This is a story strong with historical detail, from the operation of steam engines to the political realities to the business of a brothel. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
For those with more conservative tastes, a warning that this book includes graphic sexual scenes and violence.