One thing I have loved since starting this blog is the chance to meet authors who are writing books on history that wouldn’t normally be on my radar. I met Dori Jones Yang, author of Daughter of Xanadu, in October while she was talking about her book at our local SCBWI chapter’s twice-yearly event, the Inside Story. The book hadn’t been released yet, but she promised me an ARC and in January, it showed up in my mailbox. She signed it a few days later and I will pass it on to one lucky Damsels reader. But while I would have seen Dori just by attending my SCBWI event, I wouldn’t have been so tuned in to finding a historical book to review and I might have missed this in the midst of all the wonderful books that were presented. Instead, I read a great twist on boy-meets-girl and East-meets-West.
The “girl” and “East” is fictional sixteen-year-old Emmajin, granddaughter of Khubilai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan, also called Chinggis or Temujin). In 1276, when this story takes place, the Khans had created a Mongol Empire that encompassed most of Asia. Their last major opposition is China, and Emmajin dreams of joining the army along with her male cousins to assist in this conquest. The men in the army are the ones granted the most respect in Mongol society, and their stories of battle have thrilled her as long as she can remember. Against all odds, the Khan allows Emmajin to train with his army, but her first assignment is less than glorious: she’s to gather information on a young trader who has traveled with his father and uncle from a fragmented, backward land known as Christendom. The “boy” and “West” of this story is none other than Marco Polo. He tells Emmajin of scholars, merchants, and the Crusades, and both of them are forced to examine their cultures from a new perspective.
I enjoyed this book as a story: the characters were well-developed, the story kept my attention and threw in a new angle just when I thought I had it figured out. Even more than that, I enjoyed it as a reminder that the history of the world is not just the history of Europe and North America. Mongolia created a huge empire, as large or larger in area as Rome, and their civilization was very advanced for the time. Europe, in contrast, was only beginning to come out of the Dark Ages, and it was contact with societies like the Mongols that helped make that possible. We as Westerners often forget that part of history because we would rather read romanticized versions of the Middle Ages. The regions that would become the nations of Europe would, of course, become very powerful, but not for several centuries. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, really, belonged to Mongolia, and it was fascinating to be reminded of that.
Stay tuned later this week as Dori Jones Yang talks about writing this book and for your chance to win my signed ARC!