Adam Williams’s first novel, an adventure romance set against the historical background of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, opens with a philosophical debate between a local Mandarin and a foreign medical missionary, Dr Airton. They are discussing the nature of western imperialism that is opening up China on one hand to modernity, and on the other disturbing a feudal way of life that has existed for millennia. The doctor is an idealistic Christian. The Mandarin is a pragmatic administrator who has learned to view what is right or wrong through the prism of expediency.
The end of the nineteenth century is a time of change. In Williams’s fictitious city of Shishan, located in southern Manchuria near the Mongolian border, the lives of the foreign community – missionaries, businessmen and railway builders – are disrupted by the arrival of the beautiful and curious Helen Frances, daughter of one of the merchants, and a mysterious Englishman, the dark and sardonic Henry Manners, who appears to be on some sort of secret mission for his government.
Meanwhile the local Mandarin has his hands full dealing with the local power interests of the town, including the bandits in the hills and the black societies, who see opportunity in the rebellion spreading in the villages led by superstitious peasants with a mission to drive all foreigners out of China and save the ailing Qing Dynasty.
The focus for all intrigue and discontent is the notorious brothel, The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure, run by the evil Mother Liu and her sadistic son, Ren Ren.
When the Boxer insurrection flames the countryside, the Mandarin is forced to ally with the bandits and gang members who are leading the insurrection. The foreigners, locked into the doctor’s mission for their protection, face the prospect of massacre.
The academic discussions between the doctor and the Mandarin about pragmatism and idealism, right and wrong, are finally to be put to the test. In order to survive, Dr Airton has to face a moral choice that challenges everything in which he believes. And the path to survival lies in the scented rooms of the Palace of Heavenly Pleasure…
The epic climax of Williams’s novel, which has been translated into 10 languages and achieved bestseller status all over the world, has been described by The Times of London as being as good as an adventure story gets. Newsweek wrote that Williams skilfully depicts the cultural disconnect between Westerners and Chinese through a sharply drawn cast of characters who confront romance, adventure and stark moral dilemmas.