Tales of the Celestial Kingdom
Sue Lynn Tan
Illustrated by Kelly Chong

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Oh, shit. I thought I loved Liwei and Wenzhi at the end of Heart of the Sun Warrior, but now I love them MOAR. If this series is a representative sample of Tan’s approach to romance, drama, and general YA angst, I have no objections. I now consider my Celestial Kingdom hangover cured, but I am still awaiting the upcoming third book and also renewing my petition to turn this series into a TV show with at least three seasons.

Tales of the Celestial Kingdom is a companion book to the Celestial Kingdom duology, a succinct collection of illustrated short stories exploring alternative perspectives to the main narrative. Though I will be focusing on Wenzhi’s time in the Mortal Realm and Xingyin’s epilogue, the rest of the stories cover events both before and during Daughter of the Moon Goddess and Heart of the Sun Warrior. In “Rise of the Sunbirds,” “The Ten Suns,” and “Goddess of the Moon,” Houyi defeats ten rampaging sunbirds and becomes a hero of legend, only to then lose his wife Chang’e when she takes a potion of immortality to save both herself and their unborn daughter. “The Snow Ginseng Root” and “Battle with the Bone Devil” are narrated by Liwei and Wenzhi, respectively, and follow the two men during a couple of their adventures with Xingyin; in “Return to the Jade Palace,” Xingyin’s friend Shuxiao takes over as she and Demon General Mengqi rescue the Celestial Emperor and his court from the clutches of the nefarious Wugang, squabbling all the way (and gradually recognizing a mutual attraction). Finally, in the bittersweet “A Rival’s Spirit,” Liwei – now Celestial Emperor after his father’s resignation – makes begrudging contact with the spirit of Wenzhi. Though he still wishes things could have gone differently between himself and Xingyin, and though he and Wenzhi still absolutely loathe each other, he realizes that both he and Xingyin deserve better than an eternity of longing, and he sends Wenzhi to the Mortal Realm for rebirth.

All roads lead to “Sun Moon Teahouse” and “Home,” narrated by Wenzhi and Xingyin as they find their way back to each other. Having successfully asked Xingyin for a date, the mortal Wenzhi – known in the Mortal Realm as Minister Zhao – frets over every detail while simultaneously worrying that Xingyin will fail to appear. Luckily for him, she does appear, and they cautiously reconnect over a romantic dinner. Though he has no memories from his time as an Immortal, Wenzhi feels a strong connection to Xingyin, and they spend the next several years living happily together in the Mortal Realm. Despite their joy, there are a couple of sticky points in their relationship: Xingyin refuses all of Wenzhi’s proposals, and the surprisingly uptight Wenzhi refuses to put out until they are lawfully wedded. (This part is never really explained, but I guess Wenzhi grew some principles when he became a minister. Not that he didn’t have any before, but you know what I mean.) Either way, their life lately has been lovely, though there are whispers among the servants and the people in general, as Xingyin never ages and is always in suspiciously good health.

Their mortal interlude comes to a tidy close when Liwei swoops down on a cloud – I mean, he’s not even trying to be subtle at this point – and scares the bejesus out of Wenzhi, who believes Xingyin has got herself into some sort of Immortal-related trouble and immediately offers to pay whatever debt she’s accrued. (Paranoid much, Wenzhi?) After their usual petty bickering, not helped either by Xingyin’s description of Liwei as a “friend” or by the unflattering Celestial Emperor statue in Wenzhi’s garden, Liwei gives them a newly crafted potion of immortality, restoring Wenzhi to his immortality and full powers. With his memory once more intact, Wenzhi joyfully returns to the Immortal Realm with Xingyin, there to start their new life together.

I’m nosy as hell and I like having answers, so this book provided some sorely needed closure. Technically, yes, I knew there was going to be a HEA at the end of Heart of the Sun Warrior, but there is a difference between knowing and seeing. I prefer seeing. Yet as satisfying as it was to see Xingyin and Wenzhi finally get together and finally acknowledge their feelings and finally both be alive, the best part of the book was, as usual, the disgruntled squabbling between the two knuckleheads more generally known as Liwei and Wenzhi. I love their relationship, because at this point they’re so much like brothers who despise each other but can’t help coming to each other’s rescue, albeit not usually by choice. I really was not expecting the sheer joy that was Wenzhi’s unflattering Celestial Emperor statue. Tan has showcased a delightful humor through all of Xingyin’s adventures, but Liwei’s first sighting of the statue is hands down the funniest moment in the entire series.

“You had your hand in instigating those confrontations,” I [Xingyin] reminded him tartly.

“He deserved it.”

“Oh, he did then,” I agreed wholeheartedly. “But not anymore. Moreover, you are the virtuous and benevolent Celestial Emperor, and your conduct must match your lofty position.” I gestured toward the statue in the garden.

As Liwei’s gaze followed mine, his eyes bulged. “I must have a word with the Keeper of Mortal Fates. This is…this is…”

“A remarkable likeness? I thought it did you justice,” I observed innocently.

“Did you buy that statue to annoy me?” Liwei demanded.

I lowered myself into a mocking bow. “I did not, Your Celestial Majesty. Though I will now ask for it to be elevated to a pedestal and send for more such likenesses to be crafted in your honor.”

“I will strike them all down,” he threatened, even as his mouth twitched.

Tan’s awkward prose and clumsy dialogue aside, bless these little trolls. I love them all. They are so funny and so squabbly, but they are never shallow or needlessly cruel. In the original duology we only see Xingyin’s side of the story, but this book takes us through Liwei’s internal battle, his desire to make Xingyin happy against his desire to let Wenzhi perish, and it is so lovely and so heartsqueezing. I love that his kindness wins out, as it always does. (Well, mostly always. Wenzhi is a bit of an exception.) More than that, I really appreciate his growth as he realizes that there is life after Xingyin, and I love that both he and Wenzhi – in spite of their mutual desire to feed each other to the nearest dragon – genuinely want what is best for Xingyin.

Unfortunately, I did have to dock the book a star because the writing has not improved at all. While I was expecting to have problems with the prose, my biggest peeve is that the whole book reads like it was narrated by Xingyin. We have stories from Houyi, Chang’e, Liwei, Wenzhi, and Shuxiao, but every voice sounds exactly the same. If you dropped me into the middle of any given story, I would not be able to tell you where I was based on narrative voice alone. This seems like a massive disservice in a book whose purpose is to offer contrasting viewpoints. If Tan’s range is as limited as her prose suggests, it would have been better to write the book in the third person, with Xingyin narrating her story in “Home” as usual.

I’m also bothered by the ease with which Wenzhi abandons his mortal life, which does include at least one mortal relative. It seems pretty shitty to just run off on his sister, leaving her nothing but a hastily scribbled note passing all his earthly possessions to her. I can sort of follow the logic, because I don’t know how kindly she would have taken to his suddenly becoming Immortal and leaving her to age and die among her fellow humans. I still think he owed her the courtesy of an explanation, or at least a goodbye. Given that he did not see fit to provide her with either, I can only hope that they weren’t that close. Even if his relationship with Xingyin predates his relationship with his sister, he has built a whole life for himself among the humans, and it seems odd that he doesn’t seem bothered about leaving at all. I would have expected at least a little wistfulness. More to the point, it would have been nice to know that Xingyin is not the only thing he cares about.

Overall, I enjoyed these stories and I loved the illustrations, though the writing style continues bland and stilted, and the majority of the stories were actually kind of dull. I did not anticipate this reaction, but it might be because I really just wanted to get to the part with Xingyin and Wenzhi. I will still read the third book because I’m trash, and Tan’s vision for this world really is quite habit-forming. One way or another, I am so glad I took a chance on Daughter of the Moon Goddess. The world is gorgeous, the characters are lovable, the stories are hilarious and uplifting and devastating by turns. I have, in short, been destroyed by this series so many times, and I can’t wait till it wrecks me again.