The first installment of Sue Lynn Tan’s duology, “Daughter of the Moon Goddess,” remains engrossing until the final page. It is the perfect book to accompany a hot pot of tea and a steady stream of snacks — you will read it in one sitting, I promise. Tan’s novel, straightforward in its literary offerings, delivers on all fronts: adventure, romance and xianxia (Chinese mythology/fantasy) genre elements. The novel “Daughter of the Moon Goddess” diverges from the growing body of Asian fantasy series by covering heavenly immortals rather than the archetypal mortal protagonist. The bulk of the novel is set on the Celestial Plane, away from earthly squabbles. So yes, for anyone familiar with Chinese art history and iconography, the immortal characters do ride clouds in “Daughter of the Moon Goddess.”
As the title declares, the main character is Xingyin, a daughter born of the Moon’s union with a legendary human archer. However, because the governing celestial beings have punished and mandated that the Moon Goddess remain solitary, Xingyin’s existence must be kept secret. Thus, when celestial agents come to investigate the Moon’s palace, Xingyin is forced to leave her mother’s side and is spirited away in the dead of night. Away from home for the first time, Xingyin assumes a new identity in a major Celestial city, where she comes into the orbit of the prince of the realm, accompanying him to his lessons and to his military practice. As befitting her parentage, Xingyin’s fantastic skill with the bow helps her quickly start attracting recognition. The first half of the book opens with the promise of upward mobility and ambition fulfilled.
However, as the novel progresses, the overall messaging becomes murkier. Tan spins a story in which skill and talent do not necessarily make for a good life and abiding by the oppressive whims of a celestial monarchy does not ensure long-term security. Xingyin moves through the book attempting to create a stable life for herself, but she is effectively the fantastical equivalent of an undocumented citizen in this celestial realm. The threat of exposure hangs over Xingyin. If she ever were to reveal her parentage, she and her mother would be horribly punished.
I got too much joy from reading this book. Beyond the novel’s plot, what I liked the most was how it dwelled on and indulged in jealousy and love. The novel was not afraid to portray pining lovers, miserable in their separation. While similar books might induce headaches in their portrayals of yearning, “Daughter of the Moon Goddess” elicited sympathy — in part because the pining lovers (their reunion, their separation) embodied bigger issues facing the protagonist. Xingyin, through romance and friendship, takes ownership of her skill and, eventually, her own identity and parentage.
However, “Daughter of the Moon Goddess” isn’t perfect: The novel takes some 30-odd pages to hit its stride. It had a slow beginning with awkward phrasing that could have been overhauled by a sharper editor (while I would like to attribute Tan’s rocky start to necessary worldbuilding exposition, the setting is not the culprit). However, the clunky writing does abate after the first couple of chapters.
The novel prods at the issues inherent in a monarchy. The protagonist is trapped in a hierarchical world where the upper echelons are erratic and vengeful. Her best recourse for security becomes a question of romance and the heart: Does she join the ruling party and uphold the oppressive system that denigrated and orphaned her, or does she join a morally-destitute revolution?
At the conclusion of the book, I thought that Tan had resolved the question. This novel was so self-contained that I only found out that it is the first part of a duology when I looked online. “Daughter of the Moon Goddess” is worth picking up because of how deftly the author blends xianxia fantasy elements with romance. I have few hopes that the sequel will suddenly manifest a revolutionary plot line where the first novel did not, but I eagerly await it nonetheless.
Daily Arts Writer Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.