Oh, wow, a book that updates Chinese mythology for young Western readers! You know, I’ll admit that I don’t know much about Chinese deities beyond Kwan Yin, aspects of Buddha and what I remember from absorbing various tales of the Monkey God via TV and comics (as well as the usual prominent holiday-related mythologies) so this was an entirely fascinating pantheon for me to get acquainted with. Honestly, it’s a bit like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, only I’m much more familiar with Greek legends than I am with Chinese: I put that down to better marketing of the Western canon. Like the Rick Riordan, this book — the first of its own series — turns the mystical gods, demons, creatures and places into wholly accessible and absorbing characters and locations in this charming if somewhat uneven debut.
Faryn Liu is the teenaged eldest daughter of a warrior sworn to the Jade Society, an organization dedicated to the protection of humans from the demons that escape Diyu to terrorize mortals. Unfortunately, the society seems more interested in expanding its business ventures rather than in upholding its traditions of demon hunting, so when Liu Bo leaves their San Francisco compound to continue hunting monsters round the world, leaving his children in the care of his father, the little family is treated shabbily, almost in retaliation for Bo’s repudiation of their chosen path. This changes when the God Of War himself shows up at the Jade Society compound one Lunar New Year, heralding the arrival of the Heaven Breaker from their midst. The Heaven Breaker, it is foretold, will complete three challenges before being granted entrance to the pleasure island of the Lord of Heaven, the Jade Emperor himself, and being placed at the helm of his armies. Almost all the young men of the Society line up to prove themselves, but it is ultimately Faryn who will prevail. With a motley crew of companions, she must set off on a perilous journey to prove her worth and reach Peng Lai Island. But not all the gods are benevolent, and some have their own nefarious plans for what to do with the girl who would break heaven itself.
Such a cool premise, and Katie Zhao carries it off with aplomb, throwing in any number of unexpected twists that lend further verve to this unabashedly modern Chinese diaspora mash up of the culture’s traditional stories with the archetypal, if 21st-century, young hero’s tale. There are a few odd bumps, mostly to do with stilted conversational choices and teeny tiny lapses in logic (e.g. Faryn was totally bleeding from her first fight with the nian but by the time she got home, she was fine?) but nothing egregious enough to halt suspension of disbelief. Tho oh yikes, the description of Washington DC sounded like it came from someone who’d never been to the city, much less seen our extremely tiny Chinatown (or Chinablock, as it’s more commonly known.) I’m seriously thinking of flogging my services to any creators who need localization help with this city and its immediate suburbs. Writers, my emails are open!
But I digress. Younger me would have loved this book, and grown up me is busy trying to get my 9 year-old to read it. It’s a wonderful addition to the bookshelf of any kid who loves fantasy, urban or otherwise, and dreams of seeing themselves represented as the hero of a badass mythical adventure. Plus also, Ms Zhao’s pushes for diversity — the twist about why the gods wanted to leave China is really great and thought-provoking — teach an excellent lesson about what makes a society strong. Also, I loved what she had to say about family, as well as her occasionally snarky voice while channeling her teenage characters.
I actually bought this novel in anticipation of reviewing the sequel, The Fallen Hero, next week! TFH comes out 10/13 and my review will come soon after. After this exciting debut, I have very high hopes!