I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version of this book - when faced with unpronounceable names in a foreign language, the audio is often the best solution and Leanne Yau had a convincing Chinese accent.
The main character is Yaqian, just a child when she is removed from her rural home province and sent to an embroidery school. As a young girl she had enjoyed working in the fields, where she had loved caring for the silk worms, but when the time came for her feet to be bound, she had to stay indoors and learned embroidery instead. She worked on her first pair of dainty shoes, intending to wear them herself, but they were so beautiful that they were taken from her and sold.
Her skills became recognised and she gained a place at a prestigious embroidery school, where the sales of her work were to pay for her education. The daily rigours of the school are covered in quite extensive detail, including music and traditional dance.
Yaqian is always striving to improve and when she develops a technique that allows both sides of the embroidery to be perfect, she starts to excel beyond the skills of her master.
A piece of her work is sent as a gift to the Emperor's favourite concubine and suddenly she finds herself whisked away to the capital and to a new life in the Forbidden City.
Through Yaqian we partake in events from the late 1800s into the early twentieth century, as she becomes Imperial Concubine Yi's personal embroiderer. As Concubine Yi rises to become Empress Cixi, Yaqian stays loyal and eventually becomes a personal friend. The Qing Dynasty is drawing to a close and events become tense and worrying, yet Yaqian keeps her head and proves herself well beyond her skills as an embroiderer.
How cool is it that we can now visit this Forbidden City, where so much of China's history once played out?
The author has lived in China for the past eight years and speaks the language. She researched extensively for this novel and I found myself becoming very involved in the history of Chinese embroidery. There was also the inevitably uncomfortable section on the ancient practice of foot binding, so be warned.
An interesting novel to listen to, slow moving but never static. This would appeal to lovers of historical fiction and historical romance.