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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here’s the thing about kick-ass girl characters in historic settings (or historic-inspired settings) – I have to be convinced that they are a product of their culture, and I have to be convinced that they grow into their kick-ass-ness through whatever circumstances. If you simply plop one of these girls into a world of women who follow the rules, I might enjoy it but there will be some serious eye-rolling.
There was no eye-rolling with Ai Ling, I’m happy to say. She is on many levels a product of her culture – she’s aware that girls are “supposed” to do various things, and feels that sense of honor for her family and so on, but she also had access to an unusual education due to her mildly unconventional family. And when she sets out on her journey, she doesn’t set off to save the kingdom – she just wants to find out what happened to her father. Of course she stumbles into various adventures, meets a whole host of demons and dragons and mythological creatures, and she comes to accept that yes, she is pretty kick-ass. But she’s still of her world.
On an unrelated note, I loved the realistic things that Pon works into the adventure/quest story: the characters are always exhausted after a day of travel, and Ai Ling in particular is always ravenous. We get descriptions of all the meals. Another detail that I appreciated was how Chen Yong, whose father was a foreigner, is often described as having “exotic” features. A good reminder that looking “exotic” and “foreign” completely depends on your context.
Overall, a great pace with a combination of lots of action but also plenty of thoughtfulness to the story. The characters are compelling and endearing – but watch out. The main plot line is resolved, but apparently a sequel is in the works, so don’t expect resolution on all the issues between various characters. I definitely want to see what happens to them next.
Note: there’s an attempted rape and a forced marriage, neither of which are graphic, but they’re disturbing, as are several of the fight scenes and demons. Appropriate to the story, but probably not for younger readers. I’d say high school.
Copy from my library system.