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.
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!