I didn’t know what to expect as I opened this 416 page book: it was recommended to me, my library had it, and I wanted a break from reading on a screen, so I dived in. The map, the character list, and the setting of 13th century Mongol empire had me bracing for a complex read. I gave myself a goal of a few chapters to see if I could connect, but by page 20 I was completely absorbed and not to be disturbed. The character driven plot is written in a rather contemporary manner, although the setting is historical fiction (with a lot of noted liberties) it reads really quickly and easily. It is definitely 16 and up, romantic YA and has triggers of suicide, murder, drowning, death, war, abuse, misogyny. While reading it, there often felt like there were holes in the plot as the story builds on itself in quiet layers- the story is fairly linear just broken up and rearranged in time, but the informatio
n shared is gently teased out, and nearly every hole filled by the final page. I think if someone told me about the book in detail, I would not have read it. There are many things that I feel like I shouldn’t like about it, but truth be told, I enjoyed the story. The tokenish Islam found a way to convince me it was done intentionally, the (few) main characters present held my intention at all times, the backmatter detailing the research and liberties just all combined masterfully, that I feel compelled to share the story on my platforms even though the Islamic rep is only slightly more that the YA equivalent of a #muslimsintheillustrations tag.
I tried really hard not to include spoilers, so forgive some of the vague sentiments.
The story without any spoilers is quite simple- a slave girl, Jinghua, is mourning her dead brother and comes across Prince Khalaf, son of Timur, the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate, while working in the family’s service. Shocked by his kindness, and persona, she falls hopelessly in love with him and when his family is exiled she decides to stay with the prince and the khan rather than flee. They journey together and their feelings grow. To save his family’s rule, however, Prince Khalaf decides to attempt to wed the daughter of the the Great Khan. Princess Turandokht is exceptionally beautiful, wise, and powerful. She refuses to wed and has set up a test for any prince wishing to try and marry her. She has three riddles, each one to be answered in seven minutes, anyone who answers wrong is immediately put to death. Numerous suitors have been killed. When Khalaf sneaks off in the night to test his wits, the story of how how intertwined Jinghua and Khalaf’s stories are comes to light before the final riddle is answered.
WHY I LIKE IT:
It is not OWN voice, it is researched and based on a tale from The Thousand and One Days, but having very little to no knowledge of Mongol history (I’ve read the book Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World years ago, but that is about it), and have never seen or read the opera, poetry, or stories that this tale has presented as, I have nothing to compare it to. The book does not need knowledge of the story or time frame to make sense, but the backmatter is well done and makes the process of the story more fulfilling.
For the majority of the book, Islam and the khan and prince being Muslim is just a label occasionally remarked upon when the khan praises the Eternal Blue Sky, instead of Allah swt, and that is about all. In fact Allah swt I don’t think is ever mentioned in the book. Based on the information in the back about Mongol’s and a few dialogues in the book it seems that many practices were a hodgepodge of many faiths and traditions, especially by leaders to unite their subjects. A few ayats from the Quran are mentioned as are some hadiths loosely, which are sourced at the end. Khalaf gets drunk, and acknowledges that it is haram, and sleeps next to Jinghua for warmth which he also notes is haram. It mentions a few times that he prays. There is a weird emphasis on his turban, but it could be culturally Muslim (?), so I let it slide.
The first person voice really sets a good pace for the story, and all of its twists and turns, but does make the love, crush, infatuation theme seem very naïve in the beginning, with more telling than showing. I think it is accurate for Jinghua, but does require the reader to just accept it and keep reading. It seems at times she is also rather helpless and so desperate to be seen that the stereotype is a bit cringe, particularly at the end. I get that appearance and women’s worth is tied to the time and setting, but it still doesn’t completely absolve how triggering the main character’s portrayal can be.
Jinghua’s religious beliefs of the Song Dynasty made me understand the offerings made to her ancestors and the ghost of her slain brother to be religious in context, not literary fantasy. Many places have labeled this a fantasy romance book, but I don’t know that the world building was fantasy as much as it was historical reimagining. Either way, there are ancestral ghosts that the main character dreams about and often sees, the epilogue pushes this element, but in my mind still adheres to the same point of ghosts and ancestors being a religious thread.
A found the fear of water story detail a little forced as she was not scared of water when washing out the bloody clothing in the river alone, but then was terrified to stand near a river. Perhaps a minor detail, but one that I noticed none the less.
My favorite character is the the cantankerous old goat, I’m not going to say much about him other than if at first you hate him, stick around, he might win you over.
There are multiple suicides and it is glorified, seen as a mercy, and shown as an act of desperation. There is cruelty and classism along with misogyny and reducing a woman to her appearance. There is talk of penises and them being seen when urinating, as well as one scene of an erection being felt. There is killing, war, battle. murder, death, that is fairly detailed. There is language and crudeness. There is talk of rape, and affairs, and fornicating. There are a few kisses, one while a character is drunk, one forced upon a nonconsenting woman. Jinghua disguises herself as a boy. There are theological concepts present and ghosts. Alcohol and wine are consumed. Nothing is over the top or overly stressed to the point of being obnoxious, but it is present and older YA readers can probably handle it.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would love to discuss with readers, but not my students, I don’t think it would work for an Islamic school book club selection. The “Muslim” character gets drunk, kisses two different women, has an alter to honor the dead, places offerings of wine.