Pinmei and her grandmother live simply high up on the mountain. Pinmei rarely ventures far from home, and hardly speaks to anyone beside her grandmother and friend Yishan. But she doesn’t need many words when her grandmother tells the most wondrous stories – until the emperor’s soldiers kidnap her grandmother and leave her with an impossible quest.
This is technically the third book in a series, but it’s very possible to read them out of order even though all three are set in the same world. I’ve already reviewed Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky. If you read those first, then this one will have all sorts of little connections to delight avid readers. But if you’ve accidentally started with this book instead, don’t worry, you can still enjoy the others!
As always, the narrative is full of stories-within-a-story, but here the grandmother being a storyteller brings a different dimension to the interior stories. Voice and perspective become more central than in previous books. In fact, reading this book was one of the times that I regret no longer teaching, because I think this book could be used for very interesting lessons and suspect it make a truly excellent read-aloud also.
The way Lin wove her narrative together with the in-text tales has grown even more sophisticated, and I’m curious to read this whole series over again to see how they all compare and connect. New-to-us characters from Chinese mythology make an appearance, as well as one quickly recognized from a previous book.
Lin continues to provide unique chapter heading illustrations and occasional full-color illustrated pages. The book is once again on thicker than usual paper. However, in this case the binding is a bit different than the previous books. The old method seemed sturdier and the spine broke less, but time will tell how this format holds up to repeated reading.
There are five major plotlines in this story. Pinmei carries the central narrative, and technically all other stories and views could be seen as digressions from, or subplots to, her story. After separation, Amah has her own scenes which are briefer and at first seem to exist only to heighten suspense, but do eventually tie in to other narratives.
Throughout the book, stories are told not as separate chapters, but as part of either Pinmei or Amah’s chapters. While Amah starts off telling the stories, gradually as Pinmei finds her voice she begins to share more and more stories. Occasionally other characters also share stories also. These stories, whomever the teller, are always set off in three ways. They use a different font, there is a header bar (different from the chapter openers), and at the conclusion of the story there is a small symbol. Typically, the story is also introduced, and reactions are given at the conclusion if the chapter continues.
Within these disparate stories, a separate narrative slowly forms – pieced together also by clues from the main storyline. Not all stories relate to this indirect narrative, but many do. This almost requires readers, if they choose, to be story detectives and add up clues to figure out what might happen. For those who can or do not, the alternate line becomes more obvious until necessary parts are more clearly revealed near the end of the story. These clever commentaries are part of why this story is so popular – I had a student who read it, listened to the audiobook, then read again, and no doubt got something new from the story each time.
Finally, we have the story of the Black Tortoise of Winter. This was most disconnected from the other pieces, but these segments are shorter too, sometimes even just one page. On initial reading I sped through these as other characters were more compelling. But later I came to appreciate the delicate balance Lin reaches. Most Asian readers will have instant familiarity with the Black Tortoise, while many others will have no background on this element. She crafts a story filled with tidbits for cultural insiders, yet still compelling and familiar enough for readers with no previous information.
Content warnings that could be spoilers: While never explicitly named as such, this story includes references to the Great Wall, and therefore the death, destruction, and cruelty involved in the making of said wall. Some other aspects to be aware of are arson, kidnapping, forced conscription, familial separation, curses, greed, threats, forced labor, food deprivation, and imprisonment.
We are big fans of Grace Lin around here, as you might recall from previous reviews. So it should be no surprise that this book was loved just as much as the previous two in the series. Recommended.