Daughter of the Moon Goddess
Sue Lynn Tan
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Okay, maybe romance isn’t so bad after all.
I have been staunchly anti-romance for most of my life and it’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but, before I torpedo everything I’ve ever stood for, I think it’s worth mentioning that this book includes a love triangle and I’m not mad. It wasn’t my favorite part of the story by any means, but I really did not mind it as much as I have in other books (ahem, Hunger Games). This marks a radical shift in my approach to romances, and I am cautiously curious to see where this is going.
Romance aside, Daughter of the Moon Goddess is a badass take on the legend of Chang’e, a human woman who became a goddess after taking an elixir of life gifted to her husband Houyi. There are differing opinions on her motives and the general events that led her to the moon, but in this version she was exiled after the Celestial Emperor and Empress accused her of granting herself unearned immortality. Unbeknownst to everyone except one loyal servant, she gives birth to a daughter, Xingyin, for whose sake she drank the elixir in the first place. Raised on the moon in complete isolation from the rest of the world – particularly the Celestial Kingdom, whose rulers would kill her in a heartbeat – Xingyin grows up with no knowledge of her mother’s past. Though her mother is somewhat distant and always seems to be sad, life is fine on the moon until Xingyin begins to experiment with her previously untapped magic, triggering a series of unfortunate events that begins with an unexpected visit from the Celestial Empress and ends with Xingyin fleeing the moon. After crash-landing in the middle of the Celestial Kingdom, she manages to secure a position as the study companion of Prince Liwei, son of the people who exiled her mother, and starts training in both physical and magical combat with the goal of winning the Emperor’s favor and earning her mother’s freedom. Along the way she discovers a latent talent for archery, fights monsters, rescues dragons, beats up would-be rapists, and falls in love with the handsome Liwei (who is exactly who he says he is) and the equally handsome Captain Wenzhi (who isn’t).
There are so many things to love about this book, but the thing I love most is probably Xingyin. She is feisty, stubborn, and resourceful. She speaks her mind, even (or especially) when she probably shouldn’t, but is also capable of holding her tongue when she really needs to. She spends years single-mindedly turning her body into a weapon and casually threatens to shoot a man with lightning shortly after breaking his heart. Despite her accomplishments, her character is handled so well that she never becomes obnoxious or one-dimensional, the way modern female characters often do. She is a very well-rounded character: strong but humble, impatient but humorous and self-aware. Though she doesn’t take naturally to quieter activities, such as meditation, she eventually comes to see the benefit in them and even apologizes to her teacher for not appreciating her lessons. She manages all this without ever losing sight of herself, and her character remains consistent throughout the book. Her two suitors fall madly in love with her specifically because she is who she is and neither of them would change her for the world, which I found incredibly refreshing. Yes, there is some jealousy and possessiveness, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was in Twilight.
Most importantly, the book is indisputably Chinese. Even though Xingyin is an original character, the story is firmly rooted in Chinese mythology, some of which I recognized. I grew up reading Hou Yi Shoots the Suns (though it’s worth noting that we also have a book titled Bawshou Rescues the Sun – look, no one ever said Chinese mythology was consistent). This isn’t some lackluster Asian-inspired fantasy where a bunch of real-world Asian countries get thrown into the same pot and eventually blend themselves into some weird non-Asian writer’s idea of Asian cultures and people. Even with immortality and magical powers thrown in, I could relate to the characters. Their culture, their attitudes, their struggles, from the foods they eat to Xingyin’s desire to save her mother, resonated with me in so many ways. The world made so much sense. There was never any moment that made me stop and go back to see if I’d missed something. As a whole, the book represents without stereotyping, and it’s wonderful. It may also finally convince me to start watching Chinese dramas because it really reads like a historical romance drama, and I’m here for it. And I suppose I shouldn’t be laughing at the poor fellow, but this moment was so dramatic that I kinda had to:
“How can you think that?” I seethed, releasing him [Liwei]. “I am sick to my core of bloodshed, terror, and grief. Our best chance is to convince him to let us go. If you attack him, his soldiers will strike us. And if he hurts you again,” I raised my voice so Wenzhi would hear, “he’ll have a lightning bolt through his heart.”
“You’ve already broken it, Xingyin. What other damage could you do?” he said quietly.
My biggest gripe with the book is that the writing is not good. This is yet another fine example of a debut author unwittingly murdering my brain by reminding me of my own writing style from like ten years ago, and, while I cannot claim malice aforethought, I was very disappointed with the writing. The language was very repetitive, particularly during action scenes, and some of the phrasing was completely on the wrong side of cringey. I wanted it to be beautiful and lyrical and all the other things that people like me dream about, but in general I felt that the narrative style didn’t really fit the vibe of the story.
I also thought that the sub-arcs got resolved just a little too quickly, and, though they all built up to larger arcs, the story could have benefitted from either a reduction in or an extension of the sub-arcs. The book is just over 500 pages, but it’s very episodic, and the story is somewhat choppy; and, though it was the result that I wanted, I didn’t entirely buy into the convenient dissolution of Liwei’s betrothal. Yet even with all the action and the drama, the book ultimately reads like a stepping stone to the next book, and it really makes me wonder if Xingyin’s story was originally one book that had to be split into two when it grew out of control. Either way, the pacing does the book a disservice, because it doesn’t feel like its own thing. Even before I finished reading it, I knew there would have to be another book because there were so many loose ends that needed to be tied off, and there very clearly wasn’t room for them. Gideon the Ninth succeeded because, even though it very obviously needed a sequel, it was still a self-contained unit that could be taken as a standalone. Daughter of the Moon Goddess is too dependent on its future second book.
With all that being said, I was still charmed by this book. I was particularly pleased with Xingyin’s female relationships: though a couple of the women introduced in the beginning were not promising, she eventually did form strong friendships with other women, and was even kind to Princess Fengmei, Liwei’s betrothed. It would have been easy for Tan to make her catty and bitchy, but she never took her down that route, and I appreciate that more than I can possibly say. Xingyin’s jealousy was a catalyst for at least one major decision, but it wasn’t unreasonable, and it never came to define her. Even better, she never forgot her original goal, and in the end she managed not just to go home, but also to build a stronger relationship with her mother. My Asian American heart is so happy. The book definitely isn’t perfect, but it is a strong debut, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one.
P.S. If somebody wants to make this into a TV show, I will watch it. SOMEBODY PLEASE MAKE THIS INTO A TV SHOW.