The Forbidden City Series
18th century China. All girls aged thirteen to sixteen had to attend the Imperial Daughters’ Draft, so that the Emperor could have the first choice of every woman in his empire as a possible concubine. This award-winning series follows the interlinked lives of four real women who entered the Forbidden City and whose lives were changed forever. Each novel can be read as a standalone but you will meet the same characters in each book, changing your perspective as you follow each woman’s journey and understand her actions.
As an author of historical fiction, I am used to treading the fine line between fact and
fiction. I like my books to have solidly accurate historical settings, so I do a lot of research, which I enjoy. But then I allow myself a little freedom when it comes to the plot and the characters, sometimes because there are gaps in the historical record which leave me that freedom, sometimes because I feel that I am exploring an idea or a character in a way that requires the fictional element I have brought in. But sometimes something very odd happens, where I believe I have invented something and then find out that it is actually true. In my series set in China’s Forbidden City during the eighteenth century, each of the four books focuses on the life of a particular concubine and the people who matter to her.
In the first book of the series, The Consorts, I described a newly-arrived concubine, Lady Ying, as looking like a wild eagle, being forcibly tamed for the gilded cage of the court. Several chapters later, I thought I would check the meanings of the main characters’ names, just in case there was something interesting about them that I could work into the story. I do not speak or read Chinese. I looked up Lady Ying’s name and found it meant… eagle.
For the second novel in the series, The Fragrant Concubine, I created a scene in which
Lady He (the title character) went hunting with the Emperor. It is a crucial part of the
plot, a turning point in which the Emperor and Lady He begin to fall in love. I felt
that I was taking some artistic license, as the concubines rarely actually hunted, they
simply attended the hunting grounds as spectators. But I felt that for my character it
was important that she had this bolder, more active role and so I went ahead and wrote
the scene. Only when I had finished the book did I come across a new painting from
the era, that I had not focused on during my research, believing it to show a servant
rather than a concubine. It is a small portrait, intended as a personal image, perhaps
of emotional value, rather than a formal painting. In it, the Emperor gallops at full
speed while shooting at a deer. Just behind him gallops a woman, leaning forward to
pass him another arrow. Because of the particular ethnic hairstyle of the woman in the
image, scholars have now determined that this painting portrays Lady He, my fragrant
concubine, hunting with the Emperor.
Author: Melissa Addey
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Letterpress Publishing
China, 1700s. Lady Qing has spent the past seven years languishing inside the high red walls of the Forbidden City. Classed as an Honoured Lady, a lowly-ranked concubine, Qing is neglected by the Emperor, passed over for more ambitious women. But when a new concubine, Lady Ying, arrives, Qing’s world is turned upside down. As the highest position at court becomes available and every woman fights for status, Qing finds love for the first time in her life… if Lady Ula Nara, the most ambitious woman at court, will allow her a taste of happiness.
This is a novella (100 pages) and you can get it for free on Amazon.
Watch the trailer:
Bao is appalled. A dripping wet concubine bedecked with waterweeds
is a sight he has probably never encountered in his many years of service
and he calls for every servant I have to help him. She is led away to
my bathroom to be washed with warm water before she catches a chill.
Servants are sent running to her own palace to collect dry clothes and
inform her household of what has befallen their mistress.
“So careless,” opines Bao, as he directs maids to fetch hot tea and
little cakes, while calling for another eunuch to ensure Lady Ying’s
hair is properly reassembled. “Really, they should be whipped, letting
their mistress go off alone. Why, anything could happen.”
“I walk alone,” I say.
“And I watch you from the palace to be sure nothing happens to
you,” retorts Bao. “She could have drowned. Why wasn’t a eunuch
rowing the boat for her? A lady has no need to row.”
We are interrupted. Freshly dressed in a pale pink robe with tiny
rosebuds from my gardens nestled in her hair, Lady Ying now seems
younger and less sure of herself, hovering in the doorway. Bao excuses
“Come and have tea,” I offer.
She sits opposite me, takes up a small bowl of tea and sips it
uncertainly. “Thank you again,” she says. “You’ve been very kind.”
“It’s nothing,” I say and then can’t help laughing. “You’ve been my
entertainment this morning.”
She smiles, rueful. “They said a eunuch should row me. But I
wanted to do it myself, like riding a horse. Only a baby would ride
on a horse with someone else holding the reins,” she says, some of her
I think of her home in Mongolia, where they say they have
fearsome warrior queens and endless flat grasslands where they can
ride at full gallop. “Do you miss your home?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I will never return there, so it’s as well not to think of
it,” she says as though repeating something she was told when parting
from her family. Her tone is still fierce but her lower lip trembles.
I try to change the subject. “Perhaps we can go boating together,”
I find myself offering, although I have never rowed in my life and can
only picture Bao’s face at the thought. “It might be easier to row with
two of us?”
She brightens at once. “Yes,” she says. “I would like that.” She
looks about the room and then at me. “How long have you been at
court?” she asks.
“Seven years,” I say.
She nods. “Do you see the Emperor often? I mean as a companion,”
she adds, a small blush rising on her neck.
“Not often,” I say.
“How often, though?” she asks, too new to this world to have
caught my tone.
Something in me wants to tell her the truth. “Three times,” I say.
“A month?” she asks, no doubt thinking this to be quite a lot
considering how many women the Emperor may command to his
“In seven years,” I say and see her eyes widen at the reality of her
possible future here.
I mainly write historical fiction: my first novel, The Fragrant Concubine, was Editor’s Choice at the Historical Novel Society, my latest, The Cold Palace, won the 2019 Novel London award. I was the Leverhulme Trust Writer in Residence at the British Library and now run regular workshops there. I am just completing a PhD in Creative Writing. I live in London with my husband and two young children who help me with research trips and exploring new eras.
Social Media Links:
The Fragrant Concubine (Editor’s Choice at the Historical Novel Society)
18th century China. The Emperor conquers a Muslim country and a local woman is sent to the Forbidden City to become his new concubine. She is beautiful and the Emperor begins to fall in love with her, but is she really who she says she is, or is the Emperor in danger? Based on the legends that grew up around a real woman.
Watch the trailer:
“You took some finding.”
I leap into the air and come tumbling down, my knees hitting the
ground so hard that I cry out. A strong hand slips over my mouth and
another pulls me upright and steadies me, for my feet are somehow
bound together, though I can’t see by what. I try to turn to see my
attacker but he doesn’t let me move.
“Stand still,” he says, his voice low in my ear. “I’ll loosen your
feet but you’re to walk with me as though you were my servant, do
I don’t reply. There’s a hiss before I feel a tiny patch of cold on the
nape of my neck. It pricks and I know it’s a knife. A sharp one. I nod,
downwards only, keeping my head bowed so that my neck no longer
touches the knifepoint.
The man moves his hand from my mouth to my shoulder, stoops
and cuts whatever was tying my feet together. I tense, ready to run.
“Don’t,” he says. He sounds calm, not angry, which somehow is
more frightening. “I found you this time, I’ll find you again.”
I lift my chin. “Don’t count on it.”
He tightens his grip. “A man’s holding you at knifepoint and
you’re talking back instead of trembling like a good girl should?”
“I’m not a good girl.”
“No,” he agrees. He sounds amused. He keeps a hand on my
shoulder. I still haven’t seen his face. His hand, though, I can see out
of the corner of my eye. It’s well formed and smooth, not calloused.
A young merchant’s hand perhaps, not a peasant’s. “Now,” he says.
“I’m not sure I trust you to walk behind me like a servant girl should.
Maybe you ought to pose as my wife instead. That way I could keep a
hand on your shoulder as we walk.”
I don’t reply.
“Awkward one, aren’t you,” he says. “Never mind, we’ll soon cure
He keeps one hand on my shoulder and with the other puts away
the blade and I feel him twist to grasp at something. He pulls away
my ragged jacket in one hard movement.
I gasp. “Don’t – don’t!”
I struggle under his hand and at once he pins me tight again, his
arm across my collarbone. I bend my neck and bite down into his
arm as hard as I can. He’s wearing good thick clothes but still he jerks
away and curses. He cuffs the side of my head and I stumble to the
ground. He hauls me to my feet again. “Stand still and be quiet,” he
says. “If you do that again you won’t be standing up again in a hurry.”
“Please don’t touch me,” I say. I try to keep the tears out of my
voice but I can hear them trembling on my lips.
“Oh shush,” he says. “As if anyone would want you for that, the
way you look. And smell,” he adds, with distaste.
The Garden of Perfect Brightness (BRAG Medallion)
The most beautiful garden in the world. The man who built it. The woman who had to leave it. China, 1720s. Giuseppe Castiglione, a promising and ambitious Italian painter, is recruited by the Jesuits to serve the Emperor of China. But his painting style is rejected as inauspicious. Meanwhile, Niuhuru, a grey-eyed, too-tall girl is chosen as a concubine to a minor prince and sent to live in the Garden of Perfect Brightness, where Giuseppe meets her when he is tasked with turning the Garden into a wonderland for the Qianlong Emperor. But as the Garden changes and Niuhuru is swept upwards to ever-greater importance, is something precious being lost? And will either of them ever be able to admit to their true feelings for one another?
Watch the trailer:
The rocking palanquin finally draws to a halt. We left in the morning
and it is now late in the day. When I step out of the chair my knees
shake from lack of use as much as nerves. I try to steady myself on
my high-soled shoes and look about me, breathing in the cooling air.
Slowly the churning in my stomach, which has threatened to disgrace
me for many hours, fades.
I am standing on the edge of a large lake, surrounded by small
islets linked together by bridges. On each islet are one or more palaces.
There are flowers everywhere. Planted in great profusion, they trail
over and around every part of the scene before me. Wisteria hangs
heavy while roses reach upward, twining through branches of trees
and across windows. Peonies in every shade burst out of their green
foliage. The lake is full of lotus flowers reaching up towards weeping
willow trees. It is a private paradise, a hidden world far from the stone
courtyards and high walls of the Forbidden City. I wonder what kind
of man I have married, who chose this secret flowering place as his
“Your ladyship?” The eunuch hovering by my side has already
tried and failed to get my attention.
“Welcome to the Nine Continents Clear and Calm, your home
within the Garden, my lady.” He gestures forwards and I follow him,
still unsteady on my little shoes, the pebbled mosaic path along the
lakeside doing nothing to help my balance. I focus so hard on my feet
and where I am placing them that I almost bump into the eunuch
when he stops. I throw out an arm for balance, then hastily try to
regain some poise as he turns to me.
“This will be your palace,” he says.
The building before me is larger than any I have ever lived in, but
I can see that it is small by the standards of the Imperial Household.
There are larger palaces further along the lake path, but a smile
spreads over my face when I see it. It is so heavily weighed down with
clinging wisteria that it almost seems as though it is made out of it. It
is a flower-palace, something from a fairytale.
“It is lovely,” I say.
The eunuch looks a little surprised at my compliment, but then
he smiles and his formal demeanour softens. “It is very beautiful, my
lady,” he agrees. “I wish you much happiness here.”
His good wishes make me nervous again. I nod, my smile fading.
The Cold Palace (WINNER Of the 2019 Novel London Award)
18th Century China. In a devastating breach of etiquette, the Empress of China cuts off her hair and is exiled by a furious Emperor to ‘the cold palace’. Historians still do not know what caused her to take this step.
Ula Nara is a happy sixteen-year-old, in love and betrothed. But before she can be married, she must attend the Imperial Daughters’ Draft. When she is chosen as a bride to the heir to the throne, her beloved vows to become a monk, while Ula Nara must face a lifetime of regret. Determined to make her pain worth something, she aims for the pinnacle of success: to become Empress. But perhaps being an Empress is not worth as much as she thought, and happiness may lie in the simpler things. The final book in The Forbidden City series, this is a chance to understand Ula Nara, a terrifying and powerful rival to the other ladies of the court.
Watch the trailer:
Eunuchs bustle about: some assisting with
the undressing and dressing, some noting down comments made by
the ladies on each girl and reminding them of every candidate’s status
and family. Perhaps a smelly girl will be reassessed if her family is very
important, perhaps a lowly girl from an out-of-favour family will be
marked down as malodorous as a good way of removing her from the
possibility of being chosen.
I lift my arm as instructed and the sturdy woman assigned to my
row puts her face against my armpit and inhales loudly. I look away
in embarrassment and when I look back she is nodding briskly to the
eunuch at her side, who makes a note against my name. It seems I do
not stink. I look hopefully about for my robe to be given back to me,
but instead the woman kneels in front of me and lifts up my underskirts.
I step backwards.
“Keep still, you stupid girl,” she says. I stop moving and gaze
down at her in horror as she sticks her face under the skirts, close to
my private parts and I hear her inhale again. She emerges and nods
to the eunuch, ignoring my now scarlet face. Apparently, every part
of me must be found to be acceptable to the sensitivities of a possible
Boxset: The Forbidden City Series
If you try The Consorts for free and love it, why not get the whole series? This boxset contains all four books, plus a bonus article on the magical coincidences that happen while doing historical research. Follow four concubines on their interlinked journeys through the Forbidden City.
Watch the trailer:
Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Forbidden-City-Melissa-Addey-ebook/dp/B07XBGDHND Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/48059458-the-forbidden-city-series BookBub https://www.bookbub.com/books/the-forbidden-city-series-by-melissa-addey
#freebie #TheForbiddenCityseries #MelissaAddey #TheConsorts #TheFragrantConcubine #TheGardenofPerfectBrightness #TheColdPalace #bookseries #diverse #historicalfiction #awardwinning #bookboost #kindleunlimited