But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn't only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined.
Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard . . . she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.
It is Chen Yong who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help . . . and perhaps more.
First Look: ***** I've been going past this in the library for years now. I've always ignored it for some reason, but I finally decided to pick it up. I hoped the Asianish setting and the overall story would be reminiscent of Eon and Eona. And I love that girl's hair. Seriously*. I actually made a very brief attempt at braiding my hair like that. It didn't go well.
Setting: ***** This was my favorite part of this book. I felt like the world was very fleshed-out. I loved all the Asian-inspired mythology. I could see all the details clearly enough to make the setting a strong factor in the story.
The other thing I liked was that, with one exception (I'll go into that later), Cindy Pon didn't go all hey-look-I-did-research-and-spend-hours-creating-this-wonderful-fictional-world-so-I-might-as-well-use-all-that-hard-work. Many authors spend huge amounts of time researching and then developing their world. This is fine in itself, but then some of them feel the need to use every single detail in the book, whether there's a reason to or not. Pon didn't do this, which makes me happy.
Characters: ***** At first, I liked Ai Ling, even if I'm still not sure how to pronounce her name. She seemed realistic and likable enough. But after a while, she just started to fall a little flat for me. Some of her decisions seemed like they were just made to advance the plot, and that's all.
Chen Yong was interesting. I wish we could've gotten to know him a little better, instead of seeing just one side of him throughout the whole book. Actually, a whole book about him would have been cool. He has such an interesting story. My major problem was that I really didn't care all that much about the characters. A major one died, but I didn't care at all.
Plot: ***** At first, I liked the plot. It was intriguing, and I cared about what was going to happen. I liked it for about the first fifty pages, or somewhere around there. I was okay up to the point where Ai Ling met Chen Yong.
And then it just got weird. Suddenly, there were all kinds of odd spirits and goddesses and mythical creatures everywhere. It was incredibly disorienting. I thought I understood the setting, but then all this stuff came in and I was confused. The magical elements just didn't feel like they fit. At first, Ai Ling was just trying to save her father and bring honor to her family (cue Mulan song). Then she was trying to save the world from some hugely powerful (apparently--we never got to see these powers in action), villainous spirit. The two pieces of the plot just didn't seem to fit together.
And then we had Chen Yong's story, which didn't seem to fit, either. I thought it his backstory would be interwoven with Ai Ling's, but it just stood there on the outside all by itself.
Uniqueness: ***** I couldn't find much in the way of non-unique elements, though I did get the impression that the author has seen Mulan a few times.
Writing: ***** I've never said this before, because I've actually never had a reason to say it. I actually felt that this story would have worked better in first person. There, I said it. I think that the voice in first person would've been stronger. It would have eliminated the times where I became disoriented because both Ai Ling and another female character were being called "she", and I couldn't figure out which one was which.
Likes: The braid. And the title.
Not-so-great: What's with all the food in this book? Wow. Cindy Pon really, really liked to write food descriptions, it seems. There was never a "and then they ate lunch". There was always at least one rather blocky paragraph dedicated to that food. And I don't know about anyone else, but almost nothing bores me more than descriptions of food.
Total Score: I had hoped that this would be a lot better than it actually was. But the characters just weren't likable enough for me. The plot didn't work out, either, and it lacked the epic tone it could have had. I'm rather torn about the rating, because it was an okay(ish) read, but I had too many problems with it to give it three stars. So 2.5 it is, but I'm rounding down because I can't bring myself to round up.
*Ahem. Sorry for being such a girl (nope, actually, not at all). But just look at that braid! It's gorgeous! Okay, I'm done.