Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang

Found via: Reading in Color

Considering how much historical fiction out right now is about privileged Western European and American girls in the last 150 years or so falling in love with various bad boys, it's refreshing to find a novel that is so completely different. In Daughter of Xanadu, we're talking 14th century Mongolia, and while there's a certain amount of privilege present (our protagonist is a princess), the romantic story arc is relegated to the back burner. Instead, this is a true coming of age story for a young woman trying to find her place in a world that is simultaneously foreign and totally familiar.

Daughter of XanaduEmmajin is the eldest granddaughter of the great Khan Khubilai. While her sister and other women of the palace are content with the life of luxury being royalty brings, Emmajin has one dream: to become a soldier in her grandfather's army. When foreigners from Christendom come to the palace on a trade mission, the Khan asks Emmajin to work as a spy and befriend the foreign man Marco Polo, and report back on everything she's learned. Emmajin agrees, hoping that her compliance, in addition to her amazing archery and horse riding skills, will ensure her entrance into the army.

Marco is utterly foreign to Emmajin. He cannot shoot an arrow or wield a sword - his only defenses are his wit and his storytelling, less than useless to Emmajin. And yet despite her best defenses, Marco's charm begins to work on Emmajin, and even as her dreams are fulfilled she finds herself questioning if the way of the warrior is truly her destiny.

One thing I absolutely loved about this is that Emmajin becomes a warrior on her own terms, rather than having to masquerade as a man. Yes, being a princess helped, but she also recognizes that in order to be accepted by the men she's going to have to be even better than they are - just as modern women often feel they have to be to compete in male-dominated fields.

Every once in awhile, the relationship between Marco and Emmajin made me a little anxious. Christendom (Europe) and Mongolia are often presented as total opposites - and more often than not Emmajin seems to be coming around to the Western view of how things "should be," so at times I was getting vibes of the Western man civilizing the wild savages of the east. Thankfully, Yang is able to thoroughly describe Emmajin's evolving ideas so it becomes clear it's not just Marco's influence. I'd have liked it if we could have seen Marco adapting a bit more to Mongolian ways so it would be more like a true cultural exchange, but the ending is left open enough that maybe Yang can pull together another book out of that!

Like I said in the introduction, above all else this is Emmajin's coming of age story. She's truly learning what it means to be an adult and have to make tough choices and learn new things about herself. Yang has done an excellent job describing 14th century Mongolia, and by including the familiar character of Marco Polo she has a seamless way to weave all of the amazing facts about this setting into the narrative while rarely dragging down the story. A refreshing change of pace from a lot of the historical fiction/romance out there today! (And a brief aside: a book with a wonderful cover! After the whitewashing controversies of the last few years, 2011 is shaping up to be an amazing year for proudly putting the faces of characters of color on covers!)
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