I’ve devoted the past couple of weeks to reading Asian fantasies. Following Song of the Crimson Flower and The Night Tiger, my trilogy ends with The Library of Legends by Janie Chang. Published earlier this year, I discovered it when it was announced as a Book of the Month selection in April. Its magical description was enough to entice me!
The Library of Legends takes us to China in 1937. While the country is internally divided, having just come out of the first phase of a civil war, they are also in the midst of the second Sino-Japanese War, part of WWII. This tumultuous time forms the backdrop for a group of students at Minghua University. When Nanking becomes too unsafe due to the bombings, the students are forced to travel west across China to safety. But they must walk nearly the whole way – over 1,000 miles – and they carry with them a special piece of Chinese history: The Library of Legends, dozens of volumes of ancient books documenting the country’s mythologies and folklore.
Hu Lian is among the student refugees traveling west, but she closely guards her true identity and family secrets. She becomes close to a few people during the months of travel, but not everyone is safe. While some face death or arrest, Lian faces blackmail and espionage. Eventually, she and a classmate – Liu Shaoming – and the mysterious maidservant Sparrow Chen must turn back to Shanghai.
The Library of Legends gains extra sparkle by weaving in some of the mythological beings from the titular legends. Some among the group may not actually be mortal humans, even if not everyone can see the truth.
The Library of Legends is an interesting and illuminating story, and it weaves in more actual history than I initially realized. In fact, the author’s father was one of those students in the late 1930s who really did migrate west with his university. Even the titular Library of Legends is based on a real (and extensive!) encyclopedia of Chinese literature and mythology.
For me, one the biggest strengths of the novel was the eye-opening look at how war impacted civilians. I’ve read several war-related books over the years, but only two others have been set in Asia: Pachinko and Music of the Ghosts. This was my first read about how Chinese people were affected by war, and the first of any I’ve read about how it impacted students specifically.
It opens with a painfully real scene in which Lian is in an area when it’s bombed. It’s a visceral and harrowing scene that sets the tone for how grim this book can be. But even as we watch our main characters become refugees in their own country, traversing across dangerous land where they could be bombed or become ill, the narration never becomes too heavy. The writing is sparse enough that it’s easy to keep reading.
In some ways, The Library of Legends did feel a bit disconnected for me. Perhaps it was due to the third person narration, or the flitting between characters, especially early on. Although those elements don’t generally bother me, this novel may have impacted me more with a closer perspective. I didn’t feel as fully immersed or invested in the story. But even so, I did enjoy the novel.
One element that I did love was the subtle sprinkling of magic and myth throughout the story. As with my previous read, The Night Tiger, the fantasy elements felt light enough that it could be construed as magical realism. Indeed, only some of the characters could see the mythological beings, either at all or, more generally, in their magical forms. For the reader, and for a lucky few characters, this is a fantastical world. But for most characters in the book, their world looks as real as the one we live in now.
Another element I liked was the importance of family, and the close look at parent-child relationships near the end of the novel. Even in the rough context of war and sickness, we see the value of being with family and how much we rely on our loved ones. And it’s not just blood relations; we also see how a new step-parent or adopted child can love just as wholly and form a close bond.
Glossing over a major spoiler here, I do just want to mention: There’s a significant revelation about one of the characters late in the book – and about an action they committed – that had me shook. But then it was just… ignored? I can’t say more here, and sorry for bringing it up. People who’ve finished the book, I need to know what you think about it.
By the end, The Library of Legends is wrapped up nicely. Almost too nicely, but it depends on your taste. It left me emotional and happy to have read such a unique and special novel.
The Library of Legends is a thoroughly interesting story that balances classic historical fiction with the subtle flair of fantasy. It’s a quiet yet powerful novel that’s worth reading.
Janie Chang has two other books: Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road. Both have fully piqued my interest, so I’m adding them to my list of books to read. Stay tuned for those reviews!
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