Although I would have got around to Daughter of the Moon Goddess eventually, in all likelihood, my bestie Rebecca putting this into my hands (quite literally), got me reading this sooner rather than later. It was one of her favourite books last year—so much so that she jumped at the sequel. So, you know, no pressure to love it or anything. Fortunately, our friendship can continue. Sue Lynn Tan has written something that I dare call fantasy opera (as opposed to space opera)—which is to say, there is something very epic going on here.
Xingyin is the eponymous daughter of the moon goddess. Her mother was mortal but drank a potion that granted her immortality. However, the Celestial Emperor banished her to the moon, where she must light the lanterns each night. She sends Xingyin away when Xingyin is quite young to avoid discovery. And so Xingyin wanders, eventually becoming the companion to the crown prince—Liwei—and formulating a plan to secure her mother’s pardon (and freedom). Dark forces gathering on the border of the empire, however, threaten to upset Xingyin’s plans.
This book was exactly what I needed after coming out of a reading slump in April. After a glut of nonfiction, Daughter of the Moon Goddess was a refreshing foray back into fiction. Tan’s writing is so relaxing and cozy, almost lyrical at times. She clearly understood the assignment she set for herself: yes, this book can be sparse on background and character, can leap entire years in paragraphs, and occasionally feels larger than life. But this is a deliberate embrace of genre conventions that allows Tan to draw inspiration from Chinese mythology. From the divide between mortals and immortals to dragons and the need to be honourable, Tan breathes life into a tale that will feel familiar yet also fresh and stimulating.
I’ll be honest—my own experience with and understanding of Chinese history and mythology is woefully Western and incomplete, so I can’t comment much on those dimensions of this book. My understanding is that this belongs to a genre called xianxia, i.e. legendary fantasy. I know that Xingyin’s mother and father are based off the legendary figures Chang'e and Hou Yi but that from there Tan has basically made the story her own. Readers more familiar with this genre might find the book more ordinary. All I can say from my point of view as a white woman is that I really enjoyed both the style and substance of this story. Plus, you know something else I didn’t expect to enjoy? The romance!
Yes, this book has a love triangle. As you might know, I generally don’t care for the romantic subplot of any given book. I knew it was a given when Xingyin started hanging around Liwei that the two would develop affection for one another. Tossing Wenzhi into the mix only made good narrative sense. But the romance felt really … deep, I guess is the word? When Liwei is, predictably, betrothed for reasons of convenience regardless of his feelings for Xingyin, I love how her reaction is to pull away and, later, tell him that she still loves him but that doesn’t mean they will be together. There is a pragmatism to this that I, as an aromantic person, truly appreciate. The idea that one can love someone, and be loved by that person in return, and even be together in some way for a time, only for that time to expire, is something we don’t see enough in a field of stories that often paint true love as forever. By the same token, I love that Tan leaves the end of the story ambiguous in terms of Xingyin’s romantic relationship status (no spoilers, so I will leave it at that). This is a book that understands how to tell a love story!
Xingyin is also a wonderful protagonist. She is prickly and flawed at times, prone to pride yet also quick to find herself wanting. I appreciated that she was seldom perfect from the start—yes, she is very fortunate, such as how she encounters Liwei—that’s the genre boost working in her favour. But when she joins the army, for example, she quickly gets a dose of reality when her first mission is messier than she was prepared for and people are injured or die because of her hesitation. I also love the somewhat usual tests and trials she must endure, such as when she seeks to help the dragons with their pearls. As much as Tan is still drawing from Chinese mythology in these moments, the broader strokes feel like echoes of many other traditions, Western or Eastern, including luminaries like Le Guin.
All in all, that’s probably the most powerful aspect of Daughter of the Moon Goddess for me: this is a book that reverberates. The emotions it left me with (because I did cry at the end) are still rattling around in my skull days after finishing it. I would read the sequel today if I had it in front of me. This is a book that makes me think about other books, let me luxuriate in its story for the time I had it, and generally made me feel excited about reading—even after I was finished it. It’s a sweet, simple, sublime piece of storytelling.