Double Book Review: Silver Phoenix & Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Last year for APA Month, I did a few brief features on Asian Am books I had enjoyed, but most of those were general fiction and contemporary. Now, in general, my reading habits skew towards speculative - I love fantasy! - and I've often wished there were more fantasies that made use of the rich culture and mythologies of Asia.

So it's nice to see in kidlit the emergence of fantasy rooted in other cultures. Today, I'm giving you 2 (yeah, TWO) brief book reviews of books that root themselves in Chinese folklore and culture.

This is unusual for me because I don't really like writing reviews, which is why Alz is the resident book reviewer here. I wanted to do it this time because I just finished Where the Mountain Meets the Moon last month and really enjoyed it, and the set-up reminded me of Silver Phoenix, which I read last year.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.

Book Blurb (from Goodreads): In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense.

But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

Review: I picked this up from the library after I saw it sitting on a shelf with a big Newberry Honor sticker on it. Then the blurb hooked me because there is nothing I love more than novels that play around with mythology and folklore, and this is one of those novels.

The story is formatted like your basic fantasy quest story, and the people and creatures Minli encounters is the stuff of legends. The writing style is simple, but this quest format and simple story-telling style absolutely works because Minli's story is itself, essentially, a new folktale made from old ones.

One of my favorite features of the story (and something I thought was so clever) was the way Grace Lin interwove other stories within the main narrative. Alz gave me the term "nested stories" - basically, story within a story (alternately, play within a play). While this can be a bit jarring, especially for tales that appear to be little more than colorful bits of world-building, the technique pays off as Minli's narrative continues and expands. It turns out the tales told have lessons and clues for Minli and include characters who then recur in Minli's own quest. I loved how the nested stories blurred the lines between reality and myth, how they added depth to the quest. I loved making the connections.

Grace Lin mentions in her afterward that she wrote this book as an expansion of the many Chinese folktales she had read as a child, tales that in translation seemed a little sparse. So she filled in details with her imagination. While she drew from Chinese folklore, she created something original here that has the feel of the real deal.

Some notes: This book is MG, and the simple narrative style lends itself to that. As such, I can see it possibly reading too young to some, but I felt the style and tone was perfect for the folktale feel. On that note, the folktale feel does create some distance between the reader and the characters. This also isn't a Percy Jackson-type mythology-riffing MG novel, so don't expect heart-pounding action and kick-you-in-the-teeth plot twists.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Book Blurb(from Goodreads): No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved—despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family—to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger's subservient bride banished to the inner quarters.

But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn't only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined. Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard...she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.

It is Chen Yong who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help...and perhaps more.

Review: I actually read this last year, so forgive me if I get something wrong or am unnecessarily vague.

Silver Phoenix, while having elements of folklore (e.g. Ai Ling encounters quite a few supernatural/mythological creatures), the story itself is not trying to present itself as a folktale; it's a YA fantasy. The point of view is close. There's more focus on the characters' emotions and a greater sense of danger. The journey also skews more towards the personal.

The writing style is straight-forward and easy to read. I think the beginning was a little slow but picks up soon enough. The characters are likable, and a character I totally thought would annoy me turned out to be quite fun. I think the best part of this book though is the world-building elements. Cindy Pon draws from Chinese culture and myth, and for people new to Chinese folklore, the book serves as a nice introduction to some of the weird and creepy creatures wandering the ancient landscape. There aren't actual tales of these supernaturals presented in the narrative (as in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon), but we learn with the characters by scary experience about the nature of these supernaturals.

Also, another world-building detail I have to mention is the FOOD. Cindy Pon does her Taiwanese roots proud because if I can tell you anything about Taiwanese people, it's that we love our food. So aside from providing a fun intro the to creepy crawlies of Chinese lore, Cindy Pon gives you a mini-food tour of Chinese cuisine. I will say the food descriptions are sometimes a little much (like maybe she dedicated too many lines of story to food description / eating), but they did make my mouth water (and my stomach growl), not gonna lie.

Some notes: The thing is the writing style is kind of simple and straight-forward, and I think combined with the linear forward-motion format of the Quest narrative, something about it all just made it hard for me to really connect with the characters. I liked them well enough, but I always felt a little distanced from them. The plot too, while filled with tense moments and interesting characters/creatures/settings, didn't really grab me. I often compare this to my feelings towards the Narnia The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie: Once the kids are in Narnia, it becomes a steady rush from plot point to plot point. I liked the movie, but the plot was like a straight line and I watched the characters run along it from a distance - where I sympathized with them, but I didn't empathize.

Basically, that's kind of how I felt about Silver Phoenix; we just moved along from plot point to plot point towards a foreseeable end-point (a la a final battle / confrontation). Also, that's another, personal gripe of mine: the foreseeable end-point was... weird, and therefore a little anti-climatic.

Have any of you read either of these books? What did you think? Do you have any non-generic European medieval fantasy to recommend? See you all Friday!


Sherrie Petersen said...

I read Silver Phoenix when it first came out, so more than two years ago. And like you I remember enjoying it a lot -- her descriptions took me right there and oh, the food!! -- but not loving it. I do want to read the new companion novel she has out though. I liked the characters enough to want to read more about them. Plus I really like Cindy :)

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I haven't read Silver Phoenix yet, but it's in my ever-growing To Read collection on my Kindle.

Have you read The Dragon and the Stars? It's an anthology of Chinese-culture-inspired science fiction.

Angela said...

That's too bad about the characters in Silver Pheonix because it looks like a really great read.

Do you know who's written some good fantasy books that are rooted in Asian culture?

Shannon Hale, I loved her Book of a Thousand Days.

Lori M. Lee said...

I was lucky enough to win Silver Phoenix (and its sequel *_*) recently. I'm super excited to start reading! It'll be interesting to see if I find the same sort of emotional distance from the characters.

ali cross said...

I've read SILVER PHOENIX and LOVED the cultural aspects of the story. I found myself wondering a LOT what was based on REAL asian folklore and what was purely fictional. I agree with you that the characters were kept at arm's length, but it didn't particularly hamper my enjoyment of the story.

I haven't read MOUNTAIN yet, but I will! Thanks for the recommend!

Lydia Kang said...

I haven't read Silver Phoenix yet, but I'd like to. Great review. One of these days I'm going to Taiwan with my in-law's family and I'm going to PIG OUT.

XiXi said...

I haven't seen either of those books, and I don't know much about Chinese folklore either. Thanks for sharing!