Beijing, 1839. Jiang Shi-Rong is a newly appointed secretary by the well-known official Lin, who has been given a mission of great importance by the emperor. All measures are to be taken to eradicate illegal opium, and Jiang is to help Lin achieve that.
Calcutta, India. An English merchant, John Trader, is eager to get into the trade with China. Many get rich quickly by supplying China with opium in exchange for tea. When John arrives in Canton region, where foreign merchants are allowed to trade, he arrives right at the time, when Chinese officials are cracking down on illegal trade.
The first Opium War sets the events for this story, where in the Canton region we meet the first array of characters, including a young woman struggling with the rigid traditions of China. Mei-Ling lives with her in-laws where strict rules are imposed by her mother-in-law. Mei-Ling knows she needs to give birth to a boy, otherwise she may never see her baby-girl, and she knows the rumors what happens to baby-girls.
The story further explores the conflict between Manchu dynasty and Taiping rebels, who try to overthrow the emperor. Thus, introducing another vibrant character, who from playing the roles of the warrior prince at school, Guanji rises to become a real Manchu warrior. The conflict, may further affect the livelihood of another fascinating character known as Lacquer Nail. He comes from a small village outside Beijing, where as a boy learns how to read and write, which is not a common thing to achieve. Then, through watching craftsmen doing their work, he learns the details of lacquering works. And along the way, we are exposed to the art of lacquer-making going back to the days of the Han dynasty. And someone who comes from a small place and makes his way to the imperial palace by becoming a eunuch, in the process revealing juicy details of becoming one, the different roles they perform, from lowliest to the most powerful.
As with all his previous historical novels, Edward Rutherfurd weaves sagas with wide range of characters and events. He is a great architect of complex characters, richly layered with challenging historical events. The vast and rich lands of China reflect the intriguing characters, rich history and culture seeped with traditions going back to ancient times. Sprawling with intrigue and deception, the master storyteller extenuates the minds behind the causes of conflicts. Sprinkled with love, sharp prose lighted with humor, makes the story a remarkably engrossing and entertaining read.