Thursday, February 17, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Inspired by the legend of Chang’e, a story of a girl’s quest to free her mother from prison on the moon, despite the opposition of the imperium of heaven.

Illustrator: Jason Chuang
Designer: Ellie Game
Chang’e, goddess of the moon, has been imprisoned by the Emperor and Empress of Heaven, alone and far from all immortals and mortals alike. Little do they know, she has a daughter, the child of her husband Houyi, with whom she was pregnant when she ascended to godhood. Chang’e has kept Xingyin’s existence a secret from everyone, but as her daughter’s abilities grow and develop, this is becoming impossible. When a sudden burst of power draws the attention of the rulers of Heaven, Xingyin is pushed out of the home she has always known, and into the wide world of the immortals, full of inequalities, cruelty and power struggles. She must navigate this, keeping her true identity secret, to try to find a way to free her mother from her prison, and return home herself.

This was a novel that felt like it didn’t start strong, and didn’t really seem to get better, but somehow grew on me as I read it, so when I look back, despite remembering being quite ambivalent about it, I have a great deal of fondness. I think it’s a book that would do well out of a second read, not because it would provide new twists or foreshadowing you didn’t catch the first time, but simply because you’d have settled into the tone and pace of Sue Lynn Tan’s writing. There’s a quality of the traditional fairy tale or myth to her prose that’s a little alien to a lot of modern fantasy novels – a level of distance from the protagonist, and remoteness to how we see inside their thoughts – that is a tad difficult to embrace at first, but which slowly becomes familiar, until you don’t really notice it at all. By the end of the book, I liked it a lot, and I was deeply embedded in Xingyin’s point of view and emotions, but at the start, it felt difficult to get a grip on her, and to have a grasp on how she felt about things, especially when the start of the book is, in many ways, some of the most emotionally tumultuous.

However, it never felt hard to keep reading, because despite that slightly distant tone, there was a lot to recommend the rest of the book to keep you going, not least the physical descriptions. Tan did a great job of giving you a sense of the clothing and the atmosphere and environments of her setting, and so looking back, I’m able to conjure up a vivid visual memory of several of the locations throughout the story. Even while the abstract felt a little ill-defined, the concrete was always perfect and palpable.

This also comes through in Tan’s descriptions of the other characters outside of Xingyin – we know how they dress, their mannerisms, for instance, and they all speak in noticeably different voices – yet all patterned within that slightly remote, cold tone. It’s as though Xingyin has a level of personal calmness, a remove, from which she is narrating, that at first implies she’s not particularly emotionally affected by the story. As you read through, and see through her actions how deeply she feels some of what happens, this reveals itself to be untrue, and you come to a familiarity with her character perspective, and so a comfort with the style, and hopefully an enjoyment, that was somewhat elusive at the start.

That being said, there are still a few rough edges. Some of the less prominent secondary characters are extremely one dimensional, even though the two main ones are well fleshed out. The romantic relationships early in the book were extremely obvious, pretty much from the moment each character is introduced. Tan does well to build some real tension into them, but it feels an uphill battle after the blatantness of the introductions.

There’s an equally inevitable feel to Xingyin’s progression into the imperial court. Once again, Tan does a great job of trying to give us tension and drama in each individual moment – and there are some lovely, well-drawn, memorable moments created – but the overall feel of the arc is one of inexorable success. We all know she’s going to make it to the court, we all know she’s going to turn out to be strong, and talented, and that takes some of the fun out of it. Even if, in most stories, we know, the story does enough work to make us doubt it, and so you get some actual drama along the way. Here, although Tan tries, the initial setup makes it feel just too much of a done deal, and possibly that feeds in to why, at first, the book didn’t hook me in.

But the middle and final thirds of the book do cast doubt on some of the assumptions you make – while her initial goals feel inevitable, the later parts of Xingyin’s journey do have that tension and that drama, and so as the story progresses, it gets easier and easier to be sucked in, and to wonder what comes next. Some things do still feel inevitable, but enough rugs have been pulled, or minor twists in the path, that you start to wonder, and that makes the whole thing that much better.

All in all, Tan has created a lovely, fairytale-like story, in a beautiful, richly described world. The beginning may be slightly stilted and predictable, but by the time you reach the end, you are willing to forgive it at least some of its flaws, because a lot of the rest of the journey more than made up for them. It’s an enjoyable read, and one that suggests future books – and I believe a sequel is forthcoming – may well be worth looking into.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 beautiful world descriptions

+1 actually nailing the mythic/fairytale feel

Penalties: -1 for being a little hard to get into at the start

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea

Reference: Daughter of the Moon Goddess Sue Lynn Tan [Harper Voyager, 2022]