Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Book Review: Daughter of Xanadu, by Dori Jones Yang

Daughter of Xanadu is a well-written historical novel, so of course I loved it!

We are in the 1200s in Mongolia. The ruler is Khubilai Khan. The main character is Khan’s fictional granddaughter, Princess Emmajin. The Mongolian empire believed that it was their destiny to take over and rule the entire world. They were known for their fierce warriors, who took over entire countries and usually brutally murdered any that tried to resist--women and children included.  Emmajin, who is 16 years old, wants nothing more than to be a warrior. She has trained with her cousin the prince since she was a small girl and has excellent archery skills.  But, it is unheard of for a woman to be a warrior.

Also at this time, Marco Polo arrives in Mongolia from Venezia, with a letter from the Pope hoping to establish a peaceful relationship. Khan assigns Emmajin the task of befriending Marco, and learning everything she can about the government and armies of Christendom. Marco is a merchant who wants nothing more than to return home with vast riches from Mongolia. Emmajin, without meaning to, becomes close friends with Marco.

I really don’t want to go any further with the plot. There are exciting points in the book, but mostly we are inside Emmajin’s head, as she sorts out her changing feelings. We journey with her throughout the entire kingdom. Her feelings about foreigners, after meeting Marco, really change.  But most of all I loved her reflections about the brutality of war, and how the conquered should be treated. She was brought up with the belief that war was God’s will. Her feelings about the necessity of war also undergo some changes. The way Yang presents the turmoil of these changing beliefs is what made me feel for Emmajin. I think this would be an excellent book for classroom discussion about the basic philosophy of war and peace.

I love learning the details of an ancient culture. Women were oppressed and mostly hidden, the Khan was glorified above all, and certain procedures and protocols followed were described in detail by Yang. The secondary characters also provided insight into the culture. Emmajin’s father was a Buddhist monk. Her grandmother, married to the Khan, is a study in the subtle influences that so-called powerless women may have had on these ancient governments.

Teens that enjoy ancient cultures, heroic teen girls, a little adventure, and even some romance will enjoy this book. As I said, this might be a great fictional addition to a social studies curriculum too.

Published by Delacorte, 2011
Copy obtained from the library
327 pages

Rating: 4/5

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