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Book Overview

The Secret Empress

Joe Wilder is focused on turning a successful bodybuilding career into a billion-dollar international health and fitness conglomerate. He thinks he’s safely left behind his dangerous past as a CIA field agent—except for nightmares about gunfire, screams, and holding the lifeless body of a boy he cannot save.

Facing massive price increases that could bankrupt his company, Joe travels to China for a confrontation with the ministry of trade. To his surprise, the deputy minister offers a deal in exchange for Joe helping her twelve-year-old son, Charley, travel to America. But when the minister is murdered within hours of signing the new contracts, Joe becomes both a suspect and the guardian of a boy with a secret.

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BlueInk Review

The Secret Empress
Frank R. Heller
iUniverse, 232 pages, (paperback) $13.99, 9781532068324
(Reviewed: July 2019)

In this engaging thriller, an American businessman is thrust into the position of safeguarding a child in China and helping him flee to the U.S.
Joe Wilder is a former CIA agent who has parlayed his bodybuilding titles into a successful health and fitness business conglomerate. When his supply line in China is threatened by price increases, he flies to China to meet with Wen Shu Xian (“Wendy”), the deputy minister of trade for the Guangdong province, to smooth out the complications. While he’s there, she asks for his
help in a personal matter.

As it turns out, Wendy’s mother was married to the last Emperor of China in 1962, and her rights as surviving heir and Empress of China are a long-­held secret. The concern has always been that her existence will cause political upheaval in China, which could benefit warring factions, such as the Bai Lang, a mafia-­like group who would love to use her title to their own advantage. But the secret is out now, and Wendy, who is dying from cancer, needs Joe’s help to get her 12-­year-­old son out of the country to safety.
As with any good thriller, the story has all the elements of success: a likeable hero, a potential romance, a high stakes game of chase, and an unexpected ending. Heller has a deft touch, providing readers with a strong sense of place as the characters zig-­zag through China, and generally walking the line between plausible and unconvincing as the characters sidestep one dilemma after another. In addition, anyone who has ever taken a bus tour in a foreign country will relate to Joe’s experiences as a tourist as his guide frantically tries to corral her group on and off the buses among the milling crowds.

Needless to say, most lightweight thrillers require some suspension of disbelief, and that is true here. But anyone who wants a quick read will enjoy this pleasant armchair journey to China.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.


Kirkus Reviews

Frank R. Heller
iUniverse (232 pp.)
$26.99 hardcover, $13.99 paperback, $3.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-1-5320-6831-7; March 7, 2019


In Heller’s debut thriller, a retired CIA operative is recruited to protect the secret heir to China’s dynastic throne from ruthless gangsters.

Joe Wilder was once a government agent as well as a bodybuilding champion, but he’s now the founder of a billion-dollar health and fitness conglomerate. He receives word that the Chinese government plans to excessively raise the price on his contracts in Guangdong, so he immediately travels there to meet with Wen Shu Xian, the local deputy minister of trade, in order to plead his case. However, it turns out that the contracts were merely a ruse, and the minister, who goes by the name “Wendy,” reveals that she’s secretly the empress of China—the daughter of Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty. She also has a 12-year-old son and heir, Chao Li, nicknamed “Charley,” whose very existence is kept under wraps, as many people would attempt to either kill him or exploit him for personal gain. Wendy asks Joe to bring Charley to the United States, where he can live freely, without fear. Joe accepts the assignment—one for which he is well-suited, given his past as an accomplished CIA field operative. However, Wendy is found dead shortly
afterward, and the Bai Lang, a criminal organization that dates back to the Opium Wars, unleashes a menacing, German “covert assassin,” named Max Sterne, among others. In this thriller, Heller conjures a remarkably ingenious premise with the secret Chinese dynasty, and he always makes sure that the plot races forward at a blistering pace throughout the novel. Along the way, he provides readers with equal measures of suspenseful and action-packed sequences. The author’s knowledge of Chinese history and culture is impressive, and even when the story doesn’t seem entirely plausible, it’s never so dubious as to be distracting. That said, the prose style can be overly earnest at times: “Who are you kidding? he thought. You’re enjoying the intrigue and the danger!” Even so, the tale remains consistently dramatic and engrossing throughout.

A tale of intrigue that’s thrilling enough to overcome its lack of realism.


Foreword Reviews

Clarion Review ★★★★★

The Secret Empress
Frank R. Heller
iUniverse (Mar 8, 2019)
Hardcover $26.99 (232pp)

The Secret Empress is a fantastic thriller that’s traditional in style, featuring a square-jawed hero, ruthless villains, and a royal in distress.

In Frank R. Heller’s exciting thriller The Secret Empress, the focus is international espionage that’s rooted in ancient Chinese history and modern drug trafficking.

Joe Wilder is a former world champion bodybuilder turned corporate mogul. He runs a massive health and fitness company in Los Angeles. Wilder is also a former CIA asset who quit government service after he failed to save a young bystander during a terror attack in Paris. Years later,

Wilder is brought back into the world of espionage thanks to Michael Fitzpatrick, the CIA’s man in Beijing, and a Guangzhou-based CEO, Wendy Shu Xian.

Wendy, in addition to being a wealthy businesswoman, is the daughter of Puyi, the last Qing emperor of China. In her dying days, Wendy leaves Charley, her daughter and the last member of the Qing line, in Wilder’s care. It’s up to Wilder to keep Charley safe from the White Wolf tong, a small army of Chinese drug dealers obsessed with expanding their wealth and influence in Asia.

This political potboiler gets right down to its action, with a death in the opening pages and all of the main characters introduced with minimal fanfare thereafter. Deeds, not descriptions, drive its momentum, and there are a lot of such deeds.

Wilder and Charley are perfect foils for each other, and their relationship is both best buddy and odd couple in nature. Wilder is rugged but haunted; Charley is young and innocent, and does not comprehend her noble lineage or potential power. Fitzpatrick functions as a milquetoast bureaucrat who provides a few moments of levity, while other supporting characters, including Wilder’s ultra-organized secretary, play small but important roles in the story.

Standout villains in the White Wolf tong and the Bai Lang army are serious and efficient gangsters—a dark reflection of the legitimate businessman and American patriot Wilder. However, their motivations for capturing Charley are unclear, even though Wendy tells Wilder early on in the novel that they would love to kill to the last Qing royal. The White Wolf threaten Wilder and Charley’s escape at every turn, even if a happy ending is never in doubt.

The chapters are long, but they move with speed, and the book’s language is straightforward and clear. Historical errors (the first emperor of the Qing dynasty is misnamed, and the ethnic origins of the Qing are overlooked, for
example) and the glossing over of historical elements mar the work, though, compromising excitement around Charley’s claims to the Qing throne.
The Secret Empress is a fantastic thriller that’s traditional in style, featuring a square-jawed hero, ruthless villains, and a royal in distress.

BENJAMIN WELTON (July 23, 2019)