Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book review: Daughter of Xanadu, by Dori Jones Yang

In Dori Jones Yang's Daughter of Xanadu, an exciting blend of cross-cultural exploration and female adventure, a resolute young woman’s coming of age at the height of the Mongol Empire combines with her surprising attraction to a foreigner.

In the year 1275, Emmajin, the sixteen-year-old eldest granddaughter of Khubilai Khan, wants to achieve glory on the battlefield, a feat unlikely for a woman. Physically agile, serious-minded, and dedicated to improving her skills, she scorns the soft living of the women at court and sneaks away to join her male cousins in an archery contest. She’s determined to prove to her grandfather that she has what it takes to join his army.

Intrigued by her bravery, the Khan charges her with a different task. After an arduous three-year journey east, a trio of Venetian merchants has arrived in his capital city of Khanbalik, bearing goods for trade and a message from their pope. Emmajin is asked to befriend Marco Polo, the youngest among them at twenty-one, and report back with any knowledge that would help the Mongols conquer his homeland.

Marco’s odd appearance startles her – his red beard and green eyes mark him as an outsider – and his demeanor and values present a challenge to her worldview. A talented storyteller with no interest in the “manly arts,” he's the opposite of what Emmajin would normally find appealing, but they grow close as she shows him around the beautiful grounds of the Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu. What will he think if he learns of her betrayal, and will she ever achieve her dream of becoming a Mongolian warrior?

Thirteenth-century China is a setting not often explored in fiction, and even more uncommonly from a woman’s viewpoint. Although Emmajin (a fictional character) may seem like she’s far ahead of her time, she has ample role models to emulate: not only her female ancestors, the fierce women of the grasslands who supported the rise to power of the great Chinggis Khan, but also the legendary Ai-Jaruk, a champion female wrestler whose story is told by Marco.

Seen through Emmajin’s eyes, the cultural differences in the novel become even more striking to note. She and her grandfather are amused by Marco’s ignorance in bowing down to the women of the Khan’s household. Although she was “raised to have disdain for merchants, who live off the labor of others,” her travels through the vast empire – and her growing bond with Marco – open her mind to unfamiliar ways.

Mongolia expands its borders by conquering foreign lands and subjugating their peoples, but after seeing Marco’s love for Venice and experiencing the high cost of war herself, Emmajin wonders if conquest is the only answer. Her gradual shift in perspective is realistically and sensitively rendered. The conclusion – satisfying, if a bit fanciful – leaves the door open for a sequel.

With its gripping combat scenes, subtle romance, and tangible, full-bodied descriptions of court and military life in Yuan Dynasty China, Daughter of Xanadu will appeal to the international adventurer in all of us. A dynamic and enlightening read for young adults and adults alike.

Daughter of Xanadu was published by Delacorte at $17.99 ($19.99 in Canada) in January.  Hardcover, 336pp, including a glossary, map, family tree, and a foreword that explains the historical context.

This is my first entry for the YA Historical Fiction challenge, and one of the first YA novels I've read since I was a YA myself!


  1. Come. Come to the darkside and experience more YA novels :)

  2. I'm planning on it. One reason I joined the challenge is to ensure I read more YA. I've always been interested; I just need to allot more time in that direction.

  3. How glad I am to see you reviewing this novel, Sarah! It is a book that I have been very tempted to read, more so now after seeing your recommendation. I do have misgivings, however, having encountered too little to chew on in most of the the YA books I have tried. Since you judge Daughter Of Xanadu to hold appeal for adults as well, I suppose I am curious about the elements or qualities (besides the heroine's age) that mark this book as having been specifically written for younger audiences, or perhaps rather, how the author handles those elements?

  4. Excellent question, Danielle, and since I haven't read much YA, that's something I was working through while I was reading it. What struck me most was the heroine's voice, which is fresh, direct, and youthful and, especially in the beginning, determined in a self-centered manner. She doesn't appreciate the values held by her parents, and I could see how her yearning to break free of her family's restrictions would be appealing to younger readers. The romance is also chaste (I know not all YA fiction fits this description, but this isn't one of those). I don't want to give away the ending, but to me it had a touch of fantasy about it that I wouldn't have found as acceptable in mainstream adult fiction.

    That said, by the middle of the novel I had stopped thinking of it as YA. While it has some morals to convey, overall it's a detailed, complex story with a richly described, ever-changing setting, and Emmajin matures in a realistic way.

  5. Ah, this helps, thank you. You laid to rest one of my main concerns, i.e. whether youthful rebelliousness and self-centredness are addressed in a manner that is meaningful and involves the character's overall maturation process. When the story voice is youthful it seems to become proportionately more important to craft an engaging and believable growth process or the result can be characters that feel not merely underdeveloped but bratty to an adult reader. Facile resolutions to external conflicts are another problem for me, more so in YA than in other genres due to the nature of some of those conflicts. But I am willing to overlook that because the setting and premise are so desperately enticing, and several of the things you pointed out in your evaluation interest me. Thank you for helping me make up my mind in favour of following temptation :-)

  6. If you read it, I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts!

    I should clarify what I meant by "fantasy" in terms of the ending; I didn't mean it had any supernatural elements, because it doesn't, but I found it historically implausible and facile, to use your word (since it fits so well). Looking around at other reviews, I see others had similar concerns. But the strengths of the novel outweighed that part of it for me.

  7. In the context of what you wrote I understood that you used the word "fantasy" i the sense of "wishful thinking" or "unrealistic", but thank you anyway for making sure! I will try to share my impressions of the book once I return from my travels.

  8. Sounds like an interesting book! I started reading YA the last couple years since rejoining the library, but before that I hardly read any at all!