Thursday, March 20, 2014

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Starry River of the Sky
by Grace Lin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012
288 pages

I have been very remiss in posting this review; I finished the book nearly twenty days ago. They were twenty very busy days, what with March Break being included in there, and family stuff, but twenty days! That's a long time to go between reading a book and writing down one's thoughts.

Happily, I did actually write them down. I just did it the Old Fashioned Way, in my Old Fashioned Moleskine, with my Old Fashioned Ballpoint Pen. And now I shall transcribe them using my Old Fashioned Fingers. Well, transcribe with embellishments, let's say.

I'll start out by suggesting that I don't think this book, written second but set hundreds of years prior to the story of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is quite as good as the latter. Which is not to say that this isn't an excellent book; some of the places where I felt Mountain suffered were much better here, and some of the places where I feel that Starry River suffers are better in Mountain. It's a little hard to decide, too, which book it would be better to read first, because I did it in publication order and it works, though I think it would also work the other way. My parent-child book club will be looking at them in reverse order, so I may get their opinions once they've finished the two.

Also, it's weird for me to be writing about a companion book so soon after I read the first, and I suppose comparisons are inevitable because it's that much more fresh in my mind. I have such a large TBR that I don't typically read the same author even twice in one year, let alone twice in three months. So with that and the fact the books are related, I find it a little hard to detangle my feelings about Starry River from Mountain.

That said, they are two different books, noticeably different, even though they share many things, including the structure of the folktales interspersed with the main storyline. Rendi is a stowaway in a merchant's wine cart, and is discovered in the tiny, drought-stricken, impoverished Village of Clear Sky. Dumped out, he is immediately taken on as the chore boy at the village's inn, as the eldest son has disappeared and Master Chao is in need of help. But though the village's sky may be clear, it is moonless, and Rendi is haunted by the sound of groans and weeping every night. A beautiful storyteller, a seemingly senile old man, and the innkeeper's young daughter round out the close characters, and each have a specific part to play in Rendi's own tale.

I think the big difference I noticed was that the story is a lot slower. It is, unlike Mountain, set in one place, and I think this robs the narrative of momentum. On the other hand, I think I developed a deeper emotional connection to Rendi than I did to Minli. This is also because we spend the entire book in Rendi's head, with the exception of the folktales. He is not a comfortable character to spend time with, either, especially at first: Rendi is spoiled, bitter, and angry. He's running away from something, he's incredibly selfish, and he's apparently pretty much determined to make everyone around him as miserable as he is. That said, he's also stubborn and not above taking help where it is offered, both characteristics that stand him in good stead throughout the book. I did find him somewhat endearing, but not immediately. The mystery of his origins was enough to keep me reading at the beginning, and then when I realized who he was (a reader who has read Mountain will figure this out sooner, but perhaps not by much) I had to know how that played out. And soon after I discovered I actually had grown rather fond of the boy.

As with Mountain, some of the fun is thinking about what pieces of the narrative are important and connected to the folktales and vice versa, and there's even more to be had in finding the little connections between the two books, which are there for the noticing and as mentioned above may lead to the reader figuring out clues a little sooner. As for the folktale-narrative connections, I did find them a little bit less subtle, a little more predictable, and therefore I felt a little less amazed and excited by them as I did in Mountain. I do wonder how much of this was just familiarity with the structure and style, and might not have noticed this as much if I had been reading Starry River first.

I should make brief mention of the ending: I loved it. I was kind of amazed at Lin's guts, but I loved it. I am really curious to see how the kids in my book club handle it. It's hard to say anything without spoilers, but I think I can safely say that it ended in a very open way, and there is lots of room for speculation as to what comes next. I am very comfortable with this kind of ending, but I suspect others might find it abrupt. It did make me want to read Mountain to see if I can get any clues as to where Rendi ends up immediately post-narrative.

As before, too, this book is beautifully put together and the art is lovely, and fitting. I wanted more of the artwork, but I'll take what I can get. The imagery and description in this book is beautiful, and there was a particular part that I can't talk about without spoilers that was that perfect combination of imagery and narrative "click" that makes me a very happy reader. I'd read the whole book over again just for that part. (And almost certainly will.)

Recommended. Starry River of the Sky is stand-alone, as is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but I do think reading them [relatively close] together has been a good experience. If you're only going to try one, I'd say go with Mountain, but neither are difficult or long reads, so you might as well meet and spend some time with prickly Rendi too.


Aarti said...

I read the first of these as an audiobook and really loved it though I think I must have missed out on a lot of the magic as I didn't see the illustrations. Definitely want to try this companion novel in physical form!

Unknown said...

It really is worth it, I think. I wasn't sure the illustrations added quite as much to this one, though there were less of them so it's hardly a fair comparison! Still really pretty, though.