Review: Starry River of the Sky

“Just like that, Rendi became the chore boy at the Inn of the Clear Sky. He was not used to doing chores, so when he found a broom in his hand, he had to watch Peiyi to learn how to sweep.” page 20

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
MG fantasy, 289 pages + extras.
Lexile:  810L  .
AR Level:  5.4 (worth 7.0 points) .

Runaway Rendi seems to be the only one who noticed that the moon is missing above the village of Clear Sky!  He’s aching for someone to visit this remote village so he can stow away and leave again, but while he’s stuck here, can he unravel the peculiarities of this very odd village?

Starry River of the Sky cover resized

I was very uncertain about how this read would go (the first book in this series was a 2017 favorite) but Grace Lin has delivered another superb MG fantasy.  One of the fascinating aspects of this series is that so far each book focuses on a different character and has an independent plot, although set in the same world.

The previous book was all about journeys.  Both the exciting physical journey that Min-li went on, and to a lesser degree, the emotional journey that her parents take as they are left at home without her.  In contrast, this book is remarkably stable.  The cast of characters is noticeably smaller (although used to full effect) and the setting limited – most scenes take place in one small town and its bizarre surroundings.

Rendi is a boy who has seen rather more of the world than he cares to.  He’s learned to disdain unexciting, impoverished places like this small town, but when stuck there, begrudgingly learns the meaning of love and life.  His backstory is pried loose from him in miserly pieces, but the subtle transformation of his character is worth watching.

Starry River of the Sky page 163 resized
Every chapter of Starry River of the Sky has a unique header illustration, including this one on page 163, starting off chapter 24.

The magic in this story is also a bit different, although still fitting into the previously built world.  It’s a bit of a spoiler, but there’s reason to believe that this takes place at a different time period than Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

For readers who have been paying close attention to the earlier book, or who have some familiarity with the Chinese tales Lin is occasionally adapting, the little references and connections will be delightful surprises that reward rereading and outside study.  But this series is still incredibly accessible even to those who don’t bring any prior knowledge or who happen to read the books out of order.

I’m intrigued by how Lin turned a Western literary convention around.  Frequently male characters go on grand adventures while female characters are left home to advance the plot through self-improvement and interpersonal relationships.  In these two books, Lin’s female protagonist travels all over on a grand adventure while her male protagonist stays in one place and learns the meaning of friendship.  I wish more books for young readers had this kind of balance.  While we are slowly starting to see more adventuring girls, I can still count on one hand the number of thoughtful, quiet male characters we’ve read about.

Starry River of the Sky page 80 resized
Page 80 of Starry River of the Sky illustrates a story about carp dancing to the music of a magistrate.

Grace Lin does unique headers for the start of each chapter, and full page, full color illustrations are also sprinkled throughout.  It’s printed on slightly thicker paper which allows the pictures to pop and adds to the feeling that this series is special.  Although these carry less weight than in, say, a picture or board book, they are still up to her usual quality with beautiful details and contribute to the feel of the book.

Although I haven’t read this aloud yet, I believe it would make a great family or classroom read-aloud.  We already have the next book in this series (more on that later) and I’m looking forward to reading that one, which reviews promise will tie together events even more!

In the Author’s Note, Grace Lin states:

“When I began writing, I worried that, as an Americanized Asian, some might think I had no right to reinterpret these Chinese folktales with my own modern sensibilities (disregarding historical details such as foot-binding, for example).  Many might be offended that the myths were changed or altered at all.  My worries made me hesitant to continue.”

She later continues:

“Obviously, my intent has never been to replace the traditional retellings of Chinese folklore – in fact, I hope my book makes those unfamiliar with the tales curious to read them.  For those who already know the mythology, I hope that prior knowledge only makes my version more enjoyable.”

I’m so glad that she decided to continue.  For our family at least, much like Rick Riordan’s books based on Greek mythology, these books have sparked our interest in the source material and encouraged us to learn more about Chinese history.  To some readers, it might make a difference that these are written from an Asian-American perspective.  For us, that only made these stories more accessible.


Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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