I am a huge fan of Damon Albarn – I haven’t gone crazy, this is relevant – from the first 12 inch Blur single I bought in 1989, to Gorillaz and all the solo projects in-between I’ve been there. For me, the most amazing piece of work he’s composed is Monkey: The Opera which I went to see at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and then again at Lincoln Centre in NYC. I’d seen the ‘Monkey Magic’ series when I was a child, me and my brother loved the hilarious and badly dubbed chronicles of Monkey and his quest. However, in the opera house, when the music started and the curtains opened this Monkey was simply magical, like a window to another world. The music was exquisite and the set was just incredible, with floating clouds and giant bamboo, underwater realms and ancient gods and spirits lurking above while Monkey learns what his journey is about. I’d honestly never seen anything like it. So, when I picked up this beautiful book I put the music on so I had a soundtrack to my reading experience and it fitted together beautifully. Used to Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology, Albarn’s soundtrack felt like fitting music for the entirely alien, but rich and evocative mythology I was becoming immersed in.
This incredible debut novel from Sue Lynn Tan is a mix of mythology, spirituality, magic and Bildüngsroman- that wonderful and almost untranslatable word that relates to books focused on a young person growing up. Our heroine is Xingyin a young woman who has grown up on the moon, hidden from a powerful Celestial Emperor who placed her mother Chang’e in exile for the theft of his elixir of mortality. Xingyin’s life has been a lonely one and as she grows she longs for new experiences and places. Now Xinying is coming into her power and as her magic increases, she is discovered. Now she must flee the moon and leave her mother behind, knowing that she’s pitted against the most powerful immortal leaving both their lives at risk. Alone, powerless, and afraid, she makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom, a land of wonder and secrets. Disguising her identity she works as a servant, but then seizes a lucky opportunity to train in the Crown Prince’s service. Xingyin starts learning to master archery, magic, and the strange attraction between her and the emperor’s son. I loved being back in a world within the clouds. The author’s beautifully lyrical language is so vibrant and she really does bring this stunning world to life. This celestial realm is woven from layers of description about the clothing, the food, the buildings and the unique magical elements, creating a setting and atmosphere that’s suitably awe inspiring.
I found Xingyin’s inner journey interesting too, because she develops so much from the naïve young girl at the beginning. I loved that she is following a path to be a warrior, something that seems rare for women in Western mythologies. I learned so much about Chinese culture through her obligations to family, particularly the mother/daughter relationship and the concept of honour and how it informs her ambitions. Her focus is to free her mother from exile and this brings out an incredible determination in Xingyin. She starts out unable to fend for herself and she shows both patience and grit, achieving each goal on the way to her destiny. She has to learn the history of these Immortal Realms in order to negotiate her way forward. She also has to practice her magic and the find the best way to utilise it in her quest. I loved how the author kept a steady pace in these early sections, the slower pace echoing that Xingyin is only at the beginning of her journey and she feels those same emotions we do when our goals are still so far away. The pace really speeds up when Xingyin has undergone her initial training and the army leaves to test it’s recruits in battle. I really enjoyed the extraordinary monsters from Chinese legend that the army must defeat for Xingyin to really fulfil her potential as a battle-hardened warrior. The author beautifully describes that uncertainty and fear soldiers must feel before a battle – the self-doubt that can creep in and takes hold. Yet Xingyin manages to feel this and still maintain her warrior-like demeanour. She isn’t just a killing machine. Throughout her endeavours she has kept her own deep seated sense of morality and a self-awareness that allows her to set boundaries.
Aside from Xingyin’s quest there is also an element of romance in the novel; a love triangle that does dominate in parts and takes up an enormous amount of her head space. I wasn’t sure I needed the romance for the book to work, but I guess it’s part of a young girl’s journey into womanhood. She is torn between two men and seems on a rollercoaster of trying to understand her feelings for both. One minute she’s berating her own fickleness in wanting one and then the other, then is angry that whatever they do she can’t let either one of them go. I think the author is trying to capture the immaturity of relationships at this age and I felt the romance might have been pitched at a YA audience who would understand the angst better than this middle-aged reader. I didn’t want the romance to take over the storyline and distract Xingyin from her own journey and potential. I don’t read a enormous amount of fantasy, but this was a complete escape from normal everyday life and I found myself lost in it’s imagery and those wonderful mythical creatures. The author has a boundless imagination, shown in the sheer scale of this work and how she paints her world with words so that it’s beautifully rich, evocative and ultimately, enchanting. I’m looking forward to diving into her world again for the sequel to this incredible debut novel.
Published 20th Jan 2022 by Harper Voyager
Meet the Author
Sue Lynn Tan writes stories inspired by the myths and legends she fell in love with as a child. After devouring every fable she could find in the library, she discovered fantasy books, spending much of her childhood lost in magical worlds. Daughter of the Moon Goddess is her debut, the first in the Celestial Kingdom duology – a fantasy of immortals, magic and love, inspired by the beloved legend of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
When not writing or reading, she enjoys exploring the hills, lakes, and temples around her home. She is also grateful to be within reach of bubble tea and spicy food, that she unfortunately cannot cook.
Find her on Instagram and Twitter @SuelynnTan, or on her website http://www.suelynntan.com