Goodreads: The Crystal Ribbon
Published: January 31, 2017
In the village of Huanan, in medieval China, the deity that rules is the Great Huli Jing. Though twelve-year-old Li Jing’s name is a different character entirely from the Huli Jing, the sound is close enough to provide constant teasing-but maybe is also a source of greater destiny and power. Jing’s life isn’t easy. Her father is a poor tea farmer, and her family has come to the conclusion that in order for everyone to survive, Jing must be sacrificed for the common good. She is sold as a bride to the Koh family, where she will be the wife and nursemaid to their three-year-old son, Ju’nan. It’s not fair, and Jing feels this bitterly, especially when she is treated poorly by the Koh’s, and sold yet again into a worse situation that leads Jing to believe her only option is to run away, and find home again. With the help of a spider who weaves Jing a means to escape, and a nightingale who helps her find her way, Jing embarks on a quest back to Huanan–and to herself.
This book, starting with the summary but continuing throughout the text itself, fixates so much on the idea that protagonist Jing has a “powerful destiny” that I was expecting an entirely different story from the one I got. People harp on Jing’s name and how it means “crystal” and how she’s fated for great things. I thought this was going to be an epic fantasy adventure where Jing is some type of Chosen One, a hero who changes the course of the world. Instead, it’s about Jing’s personal journey of finding inner strength, not even necessarily to do earth-shattering things, but just to have a life she’s happy with. This isn’t a bad plot, but, as I said, it is far from what I had been led to expect.
Because of my expectations, I thought the book was going to be structured differently than it is, and I wait a long time for the plot to reach a climax or for Jing to discover her great destiny. The plot, however, is fairly episodic, and it plays out pretty much in the way the jacket summary describes: Jing is sold off to be a young bride/babysitter to her three-year-old husband, then she’s sent off to an ever worse life, then she plans her escape. The book is fairly episodic in this way, though it does have a sort of “there and back again” structure to tie it altogether.
The historical aspects and the Chinese cultural aspects are incredibly interesting. It does seem a little heavy-handed at time, as the characters have to repeatedly explain what words mean, what certain objects are, what the local customs are, etc., but I probably would have been lost without a lot of these explanations, so I’ll admit that they’re probably necessary for a lot of readers, though I did think sometimes the info dumps distract from the story. I’m not sure there’s an easy solution here, however, and I’m sure the author and editor went back and forth on this issue a lot.
The characters are perhaps the stars of the novel. The “bad” characters come off a bit caricaturish in their unmitigated cruelty and apparent delight in doing anything nasty, sometimes just for the sake of nastiness, but protagonist Jing is multi-faceted, as are most of the other characters. I particularly enjoyed how Jing comes to see people in different lights as she gains more experience in the world. The jing (which often take the form of animals) are great fun to read and learn about.
This is a solid book, a nice look at Chinese history and one girl’s personal journey to fight for her own happiness.