The Embers of Heaven is a historical fantasy, set in an alternate China (called Syai) in the twentieth century and dealing with the triumph of Communism and the Cultural Revolution. The book follows Amais, whose family left Syai hundreds of years ago for what appears to be Greece, but who returns to her homeland with her mother and sister just in time for these dramatic events. The exile community (like some similar communities in real life) has kept alive old imperial traditions that no longer exist in modern Syai, and Amais, who (like the author) romanticizes the historical, is determined to learn about the old ways and help bring them back. She is especially interested in the ancient sisterhood of jin-shei, which has all but died out. This book is a four-hundred-years-later sequel to The Secrets of Jin-Shei, and due to the time gap it can be read as a standalone. However, Alexander makes an effort to tie the books together, emphasizing Amais's descent from a previous protagonist, so this book may make more sense to those who read the other first.
I found Embers to be a better book than Jin-Shei, for several reasons. First, the plot is more structured (and it's a great story, keeping me glued to the pages for a couple of days). Second, there is a manageable number of main characters. We follow Amais for most of the book, while about 50 pages are dedicated to her love interest, Iloh (who basically is Chairman Mao--you can see why this needed to be set in an alternate world). Third, I appreciated the way this book dealt with a particular period in history. It came to life, feeling as real as anything I've seen depicted in historical fiction. Fantasy elements here are minor, limited to a few moments of clairvoyance. Finally, the prose style is very good but a bit inconsistent: the book is lyrically written overall, but on occasion you'll encounter an awkward sentence. I'm left with the impression that Alexander is an excellent writer but lacks an editor, which is a shame.
My biggest problem with this book is with the dream sequences, which are too long and too frequent, serve no plot-related purpose, and seem to exist only to link Amais to her ancestor, Tai. (Fortunately, they're easy to skip, as they're set apart from the rest of the story.) The sudden shift to first person in the last 50 pages is also odd, though not necessarily detrimental.
Overall, I loved this book. There's a strong focus on relationships between women, the thematics are solid, and to my surprise, I like the way the romance is handled. Besides, I'm a sucker for historical fantasy, especially when it's not set in a pseudo-European world; I really enjoyed the chance to read one that's set in the twentieth century. Hopefully Alexander will write more books along this line in the future!