But this is one of the best fantasy books I've read of all time. OF ALL TIME.
It's set in ancient China, complete with the folklore and customs and culture, with a female protagonist who runs away from home to go find her father. The trope in of itself has been done before, but there is such originality that Pon brings, like the language and prose-- simple and lilting, that makes me feel like I'm there with Ai Ling. One of my favorite things that I love about her, though, is her resoluteness and true acts of bravery. When she met up with the sea dragon, I seriously got shivers because of 1) my love for dragons who aim to protect humans, and 2) everything was peaceful and full of light and everything felt right.
Oh, some of my favorite things is all the bits with Ai Ling and Chen Yong. Their bond! It is seriously so impressive to see how they changed and evolved, how Ai Ling grew up along the journey, with Chen Yong watching. This part made me SAD:
"It was a mistake to ask you to accompany me to Master Tan's. We should go our separate ways." He spoke without looking at her.
The numbness remained. Good. She willed her features to stay composed.
"Get her a room." Chen Yong threw two gold coins on the bamboo counter. They clinked and rolled in opposite directions before the barkeep's large palms stopped them both.
"Oh. She'll get the best in the house at that price," the barkeep said, grinning widely at them.
"I don't need your alms," Ai Ling said, her heart thudding in her ears.
Chen Yong turned without saying another word. He shoved the dark blue cloth aside and vanished.
Sometimes the way they look at each other makes me ♥_♥ at my page. Mostly, I'm fascinated by Chen Yong and his journey. I love how Pon never divulges much, only what the reader needs to know -- I guess to remain as mysterious as possible? Or possibly so she can explore in her sequel -- but the way he makes Ai Ling woozy and feel, makes me so happy--
Ai Ling's legs quivered at the thought of climbing a mountain, no matter how small. Chen Yong rolled up the parchment and met her gaze. The skin under his eyes was dark, as if faintly smudged with soot. Weariness from travel had sharpened his features, making his amber eyes deeper set, his jaw line and cheekbones more defined. She blinked and half turned, embarrassed, when she realized she was staring.
--the way she easily forgives when he smiles or stands near her. The farewell at the carriage at the end! So much pining! Ugh, them.
AND EVERYTHING ABOUT LI RONG MADE ME SO, SO HAPPY. Oh, Li Rong. ;____;
This might be my favorite passage out of the book, though--
Chen Yong retrieved the bundle and sat down next to the fire, removing a thin folded parchment with careful hands. The page was yellowed, the black calligraphy visible from the underside as he held it to the light.
Ai Ling watched as he folded each letter after reading it and opened another with gentle fingers. Li Rong sat up, scratching his head. He opened his mouth to speak, saw the expression on Chen Yong's face, and lay back down again.
So it went until the mist dissipated and sunlight shone through the bamboo leaves above them. Chen Yong sat hunched near the flames, his broad shoulders folded forward, in a posture of reverent prayer. He was oblivious to everything by the words written by a father he never knew. Ai Ling's gaze did not stray from his face. Faint lines creased between his dark brows at certain moments, crinkled around his eyes when he narrowed them as he read.
Finally he folded the last letter and tied the blue ribbon around the bundle once more. Having stayed silent longer than she would have believed was possible, Li Rong spoke. "What did the letters tell, old brother?"
But Chen Yong didn't reply and wiped the tears from his face.
But really, if I'm going to leave you with anything, it'd be this--
"Eating like this reminds me of our journey," Chen Yong said.
"I come here often with a snack. I think about it a lot."
"And by snack, do you mean two sweet buns, a thick slab of bread, and lots of dried pork?" He laughed before she could retort. But the sound of it lifted her own spirit, and she chuckled despite herself.
"I usually just have a fruit myself," he said.
Ai Ling tossed a persimmon into his lap. "I'm sorry if you don't know how to eat properly."
He threw his head back and laughed again. She tried to capture the moment like a sketch within her mind, the feeling of his shoulder pressed against hers, the warmth of the autumn sun on their faces.