Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Daughter of Xanadu

Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang 2011
Delacorte/Random House

Rating: 4/5

IQ "Courage is not an attribute some people have and others do not. It comes when you fear losing something valuable. I wondered about the other Mongol soldiers around me, and about other soldiers in history. How many of them had been brave in battle simply to defend themselves or comrades they loved? No storyteller would relate this side of valor." Emmajin pg.. 179

Emmajin is the sixteen-year oldest granddaughter of Khublai Khan and she wants to be a solider in his army. These are exciting times, the Mongols have conquered much of the Eastern world. Northern China, parts of Central Asia, Russia, Poland, and Hungary. In the book the Mongols hoped to invade India and Christendom (Western Europe such as Italy) as well. The storytellers spin tales of victory and laud the soldiers who achieve glory on the battlefield, Emmajin wants to know that feeling, she wants to win the respect of the men. Marriage doesn't interest her neither does love until she meets the handsome foreigner, Marco Polo. Marco is a merchant from Venecia and he's different not just in looks, but in personality from the Mongols. He isn't very well versed in the 'manly' skills of archery, horse racing and wrestling. Yet, he has a gift for storytelling and charms the Khan with his tales. At first, Emmajin is assigned to get to know Marco so she spends a summer at Xanadu learning about Venecia, Marco and all of Christendom. Eventually the Khan entrusts Marco with a secret mission and he travels with Emmajin across China. while on the journey, Emmajin sees a different side of Marco, he holds his own. Unfortunately that doesn't make it any easier for her to stay away from this middle class foreign merchant.

Sorry for the long summary, I went a bit overboard on the historical details. This book is worth it though, this was a great read, but I'm especially happy because I haven't read any historical fiction this year so I needed a good fix (plus in my Comparative Government class we were studying China so it was perfect). Fortunately, Daughter of Xanadu delivered. I think this book will inevitably draw comparisons to Mulan, but the only similarity is that they both feature strong Asian female main characters. Mulan is Chinese, Emmajin is Mongolian. There is a difference. Also the ending of Mulan is happy, the ending in this book is left rather open, it could go either way. It is rather happy but I felt that there's enough story left to create another book but it's wrapped up semi-neatly to satisfy readers (or at least to satisfy me). I adored the historical details in this novel. Emmajin must teach Marco about Mongolian culture, through their dialogue I learned a ton of information about life for the Mongols at that time as well as life in Western Europe. The conversations between Emmajin and Marco were natural, they never felt forced as if the author needed to bring in historical information so she gave them dialogue. Instead their conversations naturally flow from a bit of shy flirtation to discussing whether or not the Pope will acquiesce to Mongol rule.

The romance is quite well done. It's not a mutual dislike relationship nor is it head-over-heels. There's a sense of mutual distrust or at least, a sense of wariness between Emmajin and Marco. The romance might develop too slowly for some, but for me, it was at the perfect pace. Seeing Marco through Emmajin's eyes was fascinating and somewhat amusing. Marco Polo has always been this distant historical figure, but now I feel as though I know a bit more about him and can (somewhat) imagine what he would have been like. A polite, charming young guy who loved adventures. I almost wish the story had been told in alternating perspectives though because I didn't feel that I got to learn as much about Marco Polo as I would have liked. Emmajin spends a lot of time with her cousin, Suren (who like Emmajin is fictional) but I don't feel that his character significantly developed. *SPOILER: Highlight to READ* And maybe it's Mongol culture but I found it a bit unsettling that the soldiers were relatively unaffected by Suren's death? He's the heir out of all the Khan's grandchildren, so shouldn't his death be slightly traumatic to others besides Emmajin? *End of Spoiler* I also really appreciated that the author made a conscious effort to talk about revered Mongolian women. Chinggis (known to us as Genghis) Khan and Khubilai (aka Kublai) Khan are pretty well known (well most of us at least remembering hearing their names), but how many know about their wives? They had many wives but Khubilai's wife, the Empress Chabi sounds fascinating and I was engrossed by the story of Ai-Jaruk.

Daughter of Xanadu
is a luring tale that is impeccably well-researched, chockful of historical details that never overwhelmed me. The story is all about strong women but Emmajin never seems to be historically inaccurate in her fierceness. The ending being so open-ended is probably one of the few things that was fairly unlikely to happen historically, but since Emmajin is fictional, I don't think it's that big a deal. It would be if a sequel is made (which I hope there is!). Emmajin goes on a mesmerizing journey of self-discovery, the change is very visible, slow and genuine. She gradually begins to see her culture through the eyes of Marco and she's both shocked and pleased at how he views the Mongols. He forces her to question all that she holds dear, including joining the army. Ironically, it is the Khan whose army she wants to join that gives her some valuable advice "All enemies are people, like Marco. Every man, you kill in battle has a father, an uncle, a homeland, some skill, perhaps a sense of humor. everyone who joins the army must learn that." (pg. 131). War is hard and while Emmajin doesn't think it's glamorous, she isn't prepared for the chaotic battlefield. A small detail that pleased me: I had no idea what the dragons really were! I won't say more for fear of spoilers but once I found out what they were, it made total sense. A must-read for lovers of Mongolia, China, historical fiction/historical romance and those looking to travel via book.

Disclosure: Won from Rebecca's Book Blog. Thank you Rebecca & Random House!

PS Coincidence? After I finished this book, the very next day in my English class we read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (we are studying the Romantics and I'm not a fan but this poem was funny because the analysis was basically that Coleridge was on something [opium I think] when he wrote this. It's vague and random, basically he has this dream that he wants to share with us but he can't remember it and I don't understand the connection to Khublai Khan outside of the opening lines). It's pretty neat when what I'm studying in school connects to YA.