The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim is an #OwnVoices Chinese literature, young adult fantasy novel. Even though the novel has a twelve-year old main character and is classified as a middle-grade read, the content and subject matter of the book would be more appropriate for mid-to-older teens, personally speaking. It was originally published in January 2017 by Scholastic Press.
The Crystal Ribbon follows a young girl named Li Jing, who is a twelve-year-old living in the village of Huanan during medieval China. Her family members are poor tea farmers, and collectively decide that in order for everyone to survive the difficult hardships they’re facing, Li Jing must be sacrificed for the common good. She is sold to the Koh family as a bride, where she must be a nursemaid to her three-year-old husband. The Koh family is very hard on Li Jing and her life is ridden with painful misfortunes. Then one day she encounters a magical spider who helps Li Jing escape her abusive in-laws.
🦊 The story is essentially about a young girl who faces severe obstacles that test her inner strength, spiritual fortitude, compassion, and belief in herself.
🦊 The writing flows very easily, with a straightforward prose; this can be difficult to take in when reading about the abuses that Li Jing endures due to it’s unequivocal presentation.
🦊 It utilises Chinese words and phrases common to the era (Song Dynasty), particularly where Chinese cultural practices are concerned, adding more depth and atmosphere to the setting and world-building; wish there was a glossary for reference.
🦊 The fantasy elements, in their entirety, were miniscule in nature. The last one-third to one-fourth of the novel is when all of the fantastical qualities began to make their appearances, thus creating some pivotal plot points. However, because of the way it’s written it felt rushed as we go from very little fantasy to a vast array of fantasy facets.
🦊 The portions involving Li Jing’s in-laws felt like they dragged on more than necessary when compared to other sections, but this could also be related to the uncomfortable tension that’s created by their abuse, and I just wanted it to end as soon as possible.
🦊 My favourite aspect was the accessibility of the information provided in the novel in regards to medieval Chinese cultural customs, beliefs, and societal practices. Many of them are complicated and severe in disposition. Yet the author did a marvellous job of explaining everything without it feeling out of place, or jarring, in a way that complemented the story while being educative.
🦊 As I mentioned above, regardless of having an elementary-aged protagonist, the subject matter of her experiences are more fitted for a slightly older audience, or best if read with the presence of an adult for middle-grade readers.
🦊 Trigger warnings: Scenes of graphic child abuse (physical).
🦊 3.5 nightingales outta 5!
If you enjoy Chinese fantasy and would like some recommendations, then please check out the novels below!
The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho: This is a novella, approximately 60 pages, and is rich with Chinese supernatural fantasy. The world-building and story is lush, complete, and exquisitely written!
The Grace of Kings (Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty) by Ken Liu: The first instalment in a sweeping, adult epic fantasy with meticulous world-building, complex and breathtaking political intrigue, and a plot to keep you guessing!