The Library of Legends
by Janie Chang
Genre: Chinese Inspired Fantasy/ Magical Realism
Content Rating: PG- 13. No listing on either Book Trigger Warning or Trigger Warning Database. Wartime drama including death, disease, hunger, injury, PTSD, murder, and more. This is a story about refugees and people living in an occupied territory.
“Myths are the darkest and brightest incarnations of who we are . . .”
China, 1937. When Japanese bombs begin falling on the city of Nanking, nineteen-year-old Hu Lian and her classmates at Minghua University are ordered to flee. Lian and a convoy of students, faculty and staff must walk 1,000 miles to the safety of China’s western provinces, a journey marred by the constant threat of aerial attack. And it is not just the refugees who are at risk; Lian and her classmates have been entrusted with a priceless treasure: a 500-year-old collection of myths and folklore known as the Library of Legends.
The students’ common duty to safeguard the Library of Legends creates unexpected bonds. Lian becomes friends and forms a cautious romance with the handsome and wealthy Liu Shaoming. But after one classmate is arrested and another one is murdered, Lian realizes she must escape before a family secret puts her in danger too. Accompanied by Shao and his enigmatic maidservant, Sparrow, Lian makes her way to Shanghai in the hopes of reuniting with her mother.
During the journey, Lian learns of the connection between her two companions and a tale from the Library of Legends, The Willow Star and the Prince. This revelation comes with profound consequences, for as the ancient books travel across China, they awaken immortals and guardian spirits who embark on an exodus of their own, one that will change the country’s fate forever.
I loved this book from the very start. I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end, and the closer I got to the end of the book the slower I read.
I’d admit that I love Chinese culture, language and history. I have travelled to China 3 times (and maybe after the coronavirus is over I hope I can travel there again.) I have even been in some of the areas mentioned in the story. So this book may speak to me in ways it may not to someone who is unfamiliar with China.
I didn’t even know this was a fantasy story when I picked it up from the library. At first I thought it was historical fiction set in China during the second Sino-Chinese war. The subtle blending of historical fiction and magical realism with the creatures of Chinese mythology was fantastic.
The characters are lovely. I’ve seen other reviewers putting the characters down in their reviews, saying they are flat or one dimensional, but I don’t think they understand the society these characters lived in. I found the characters to be deep, and deeply real. They are Chinese, and Janie Chang has done a good job of making them Chinese characters believable from 1937. It was a time in China where differing ideals were competing. Where traditions still reigned, but where new ideas had taken hold.
Even without the magical thread throughout the story this book would be superb. There is a delightful balance between the different ideals for Chinas future as represented by the characters. Professor Kang -the traditions of the past, Shao – the naivety of the wealthy, Jenemi – the political upheaval of the Communist party, Meirong – the hope that things can change, Lian – the average modern Chinese person. That would have been enough for most authors, but then she weaves Sparrow into the mix and the book becomes golden. Because China is not complete without it’s folklore.
Beyond the great characters and deeply meaningful story there is the stunting settings of the story as the characters travel across China. There is also the moving prose. Together these make the landscapes come across with beauty and light.
Loved it! Beautifully written and deeply moving. Please can we get more historical, magical realism with a Chinese cultural background.
"He's so willing, no determined to be happy again," her mother said. "It's one of the reasons I admire him. He still manages to be kind and generous despite such tragedy. He doesn't drag around the sorrows of his past." The Library of Legends