Sharon Biggs Waller writes highly original, highly feminist historical fiction. Her debut, A Mad Wicked Folly, is one of my favorite novels, so I was incredibly excited to read her second book, The Forbidden Orchid, which came out at the start of this month.
In The Forbidden Orchid, Elodie, the eldest of ten daughters, must take care of her family when her flower-hunting father fails to return home from his latest adventure. When her father’s employer shows up at their house, demanding a huge amount of money in recompense for her father’s failed last adventure, Elodies decides she will do anything to save her family — including heading off to China to help find those promised orchids herself.
The novel is in three distinct sections: Elodie at home in Kent, on the ship sailing to China, and the adventure in China itself. The section on the boat was my favorite — it was probably the shippiest part of the book (no pun intended), and I’m a sucker for every plot twist that emerged. But every section pulls you in, presenting a richly painted, compelling world with great sensitivity and depth. Biggs Waller clearly did a lot of research for this novel: research on flowers and flower hunting, on clipper ships and tea races, on the second Opium War and on China in its immediate aftermath. The novel has a sense of danger and adventure, but it never romanticizes any of its darker subject matter. Because yes, at times, this book gets seriously dark.
But it’s also exciting and refreshing. I’ve never seen a book about a passionate botanist before, let alone one who is also a Victorian adventurer, and I loved Elodie as our stubborn and determined protagonist. The book also has loads of other great characters, especially Ching Lan, the blunt and fearless herbalist, and the ex-missionary doctor, Prunella Winslow.
The novel isn’t particularly fast-paced, but I found it completely addictive. It was one of those rare books that kept me reading past 3am because I just needed to read one more chapter, again and again. It has some romance, but mostly, it’s a book about family and flowers and feminism in Victorian England and 1860s China. If you want to read a historical novel or an adventure story that’s a little bit different, you should definitely give it a try.