Book Review: Xiao Xiao and the Dragon Pearl

Xiao Xiao and the Dragon Pearl by Joyce Chng has princesses, dragons, swords, assassins and is set in Manchuria during the Qing dynasty period.

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What's it about?

An Imperial princess discovers a baby girl in a rice field, and finds herself protecting her new sister against mysterious assassins with some very special assistance. It smoothly and confidently fulfils any period fantasy requirements you might have, both in the story and the writing. It's a strong coming-of-age story that deals with a serious and sadly very real dark theme as a central issue. I'm not into writing reviews with spoilers, but for a personal reason I have done so here, so I'll warn you now and if you don't want to read the spoiler, you should skip the next paragraph and go directly to the one below.

Show spoiler text by selecting the area between the following lines.

The story revolves around the darkness that is the killing and abandonment of girl babies in China. To be honest, I wasn't going to reveal this about the book, but I'm a brand new mother of a baby girl, and having spent half the night weeping whenever I think of beautiful girl babies being drowned or thrown away just because they are female, I can't just pretend that 'it's just a story'. I mean, it is in this case, but female infanticide is a very real thing. As the Dragon King says, ‘it’s just the way of the human world', but quite rightly, Ming Zhu does not accept this (and I so badly wish that no-one ever would accept this), and so this tragedy is made a crucial part of the story, her emotional and ethical motivation, and Chng's lean, clean prose removes washy sentimentalism from the issue and ensures its devastating impact on the reader.

Themes to take your fancy

In fact, the theme of feminism and powerful females runs right through the book. Xiao Xiao herself cannot see any need for a man, and resents the restrictions placed upon her as a girl. Ming Zhu rebels openly against her father and breaks out on her own. Xiao Xiao's mother is a strong woman, the Emperor's favourite courtesan, possibly because of this strength. Throughout the whole book, there's a sense of females pushing against the fetters of society, culture, and the imposition of men, while still willingly paying heed to family, bearing children and taking care of others. This balance is an interesting one, to do with boundaries, requirements, and an awareness that although female roles are defined, women are at least as strong, physically and mentally, as men (if not more).

What's to love about it?

As a reader who loves action, dragons, and the power of being female, I adored Xiao Xiao and the Dragon Pearl. I particularly appreciated the transformation descriptions, which were powerful enough to make me feel as though I was experiencing it myself, and the explanations of dragons as elemental beings, including being at the heart of weather systems.

I also enjoyed the insight into a culture I'm unfamiliar with. The structure of the story followed the calendar, with most of the main events each occurring around a different festival, and because the narrator is a young girl living that life, the descriptions centre around the parts she likes, her involvement with them, and---of course---the food.

And this is something I especially loved: Chng includes recipes within the narrative! Mooncakes, jiao zi, noodles and pickles all get their shining moment, so greedy people like me can even have a go at recreating some of the dishes. It provides an extra dimension of the senses for the reader, enabling further immersion into the story.

Will you like it?

Chng's calm, unpretentious prose leaves the reader free to follow the sentences without having to work out the meaning. The eye just slides down the page without a hitch, the words fuelling the imagination without slowing things down with unnecessary over-description. Her characters are matter-of-fact and impulsive and despite being young, are not foolish, and she doesn't patronise the reader. The story moves fast, keeps you interested, and you clatter up to the inconclusive end ready to read the next one, which is Ming Zhu and the Dragon Pearl. To be honest, I can't think of any reason why you wouldn't like it.

Note: The two books have been combined into one, Dragon Sisters, so I'd certainly recommend buying that.


Guest post by Sakina Murdock.

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