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Tranquil As A Forest, But On Fire Within

Maria gets down to business reviewing Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, another entry in the Royal Diaries series.

Tranquil As A Forest, But On Fire Within

BOOK REPORT for Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South by Laurence Yep

Cover Story: On Point
BFF Charm: Yay!
Swoonworthy Scale: 1.5
Talky Talk: War and Peace
Bonus Factors: Cool Teacher, Dynastic China
Relationship Status: A Whole New World

Royal Diaries Drinking Game

Take a sip when:
• There is talk of a betrothal
• The protagonist references the diary concept (i.e. apologizes for not writing often enough, has to find a hiding place for the diary, explains why she's writing in it to begin with, etc.)
• The protagonist wonders what it would be like to be a "normal girl"
• There’s a ball
• Somebody is poisoned or strangled or in some other way Ye Olde Murdered
• You wish you were a princess

Take two sips when:
• The protagonist becomes officially betrothed
• It's the protagonist's birthday
• Obvious historical foreshadowing
• You're really glad you're NOT a princess

Take a shot when:
• The protagonist gets hitched
• Another Royal Diarist is mentioned

Cover Story: On Point

This is one of those rare and beautiful covers where you can tell the illustrator actually read the book. It's difficult to see in online images, but even the Lady's delicate blue face tattoos are included. The kingfisher bird is significant in-story, and I'd have to get seriously quibbly to criticize the Lady's silk robe (which is technically supposed to be embroidered with phoenixes, not dragons.)

The Deal:

The Lady of Ch'iao Kuo is the princess of her forest-dwelling people, the Hsien. But for several generations, her tribe's power has been threatened by the Chinese, who have established a bustling colony and profitable mining operation on the edge of Hsien territory. In order to better understand and interact with the Chinese the Lady's parents send her to boarding school in the Chinese colony. There, Princess Redbird (as the Chinese call her) learns to read, write, dress, and behave like a Chinese girl - but no matter what she does, the other students still see her as a "savage." Redbird, who takes to reading like a duck to water, can't help but wonder if they're right. How can a people constantly at war - as the Hsien are with a neighboring tribe, the Dog Heads, or the Chinese are with, well, everyone - call itself civilized? School's hard enough, but everything changes when the Dog Heads attack...

BFF Charm: Yay!

Redbird would be an awesome friend. She's amazingly mature for her age - how many sixteen-year-olds do you know who are best known for their wisdom and sound judgment? She loves to read, which obviously gives her about a million points in my book (and was a nice change of pace after spending time with books-are-boring Marie Antoinette.) Redbird's internal struggle over feeling caught between two cultures - the tribe she was born into and the foreign culture she's adopted - was incredibly affecting, and seems like it would resonate strongly with children experiencing the complexities of multiculturalism today. She's also a much, much better person than I am: one girl at boarding school, Yü, consistently belittles Redbird every opportunity she gets. Despite this, Redbird always thinks the best of Yü and tries to understand her cruelty. Frankly, she's a much better friend than Yü deserves, which makes me hopeful that if Redbird were my friend, she would be forgiving when I borrowed her cute jacket without asking or ate the last pizza slice also without asking.

Swoonworthy Scale: 1.5

With all the war going on, there isn't a ton of time for romance. Early on, a character is introduced who seems like a shoo-in for a potential Redbird love interest, but (to my disappointment) the story never develops that way. Then, later in the book, a different romance is suggested and disposed of within the space of about five pages. Near the very end (historical spoiler alert!) Yep introduces Redbird's historically-mandated love interest. With all this bait-and-switch-ing, there's not a lot of time or opportunity to get invested in any one romance. So I gave each of Redbird's three "options" a half-point for effort.

Talky Talk: War and Peace*

Clocking in at 300 pages, Lady of Ch'iao Kuo is the longest Royal Diaries book by a significant amount. As it's written by the masterful and renowned Laurence Yep, I'm not complaining. The RL story of the Lady of Ch'iao Kuo obviously took place a long time ago, and a sadly scant amount of evidence exists to provide much information about her life or the way her people lived. (For one thing, we don't even know her real name.) With these circumstances, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of the Theme Park Version (TVTropes link!) of a historical time and place, checking off recognizable cultural markers without managing to build a world that feels real and lived-in. Yep doesn't go anywhere near this trap. From the first page, everything about this version of 6th-century felt completely believable and fully immersive.

Most of the Royal Diaries books go for a pretty episodic feel, with some sort of loose arc maintaining momentum through the end. A couple books in the series choose a plottier route. Lady of Ch'iao Kuo is basically a boarding school story for the first hundred pages or so; then, about a third of the way through, it becomes a tale of brutal war. The beautiful writing, of course, doesn't change, but I have to admit I preferred the former type of story to the latter. At the very least, I would've liked a more even split between the two, more time to get to know these characters and this world in a time of relative peace before it's all thrown into chaos.

*Realtalk: I've never read War and Peace.

Bonus Factor: Cool Teacher

Master Chen, Redbird's teacher, is awesome. He doesn't criticize Redbird for her love of "wonder tales" (basically fairytales), but he also encourages her to read outside of her comfort zone, to think deeply about philosophy and diplomacy and human nature. He's a radical figure among his own people for even considering "peacetime" as a real possibility. And even though Redbird complains about it, the homework he assigns sounds awesome. (Except the grammar assignments. Nobody likes diagramming sentences.)

Bonus Factor: Dynastic China

Before reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about 6th-century China. Reading this felt like getting introduced to a whole new world - some of which looked comfortingly familiar, some of which was captivatingly strange.

Casting Call:

Jessica Lu as Princess Redbird

Relationship Status: A Whole New World

Book, I know I made a Mulan reference in the title of this post, but if I had to choose a Disney song that applied to our love story, I'd go with Aladdin. I had no idea what to expect from you before we met; I'd never met you before, and I knew nothing about you besides your surprising length when compared to your siblings. But you completely blew me away. You were long but not boring, foreign but relatable - and even though our date came to a satisfying conclusion, I was sad that our time together was over. (Maybe a little relieved, too; you certainly didn't hold back on the heavy stuff and the tragedy.) Next time you're in town, book, give me a call. 

FTC Full Disclosure: I purchased this book with my allowance. Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South has been available for years, y'all. So get on that.

Maria Greer's photo About the Author: Maria is originally from Montana but goes to school in the Bay Area, where she totally fails to take advantage of the tech industry. Instead, she is majoring in history and creative writing, with which she plans to do...something. Currently her hope is that someone will come along and offer to pay her to read YA novels and eat cupcakes. Until that day, Maria spends most of her time studying and petitioning the university to let her keep a cat in her dorm.