It’s still pretty hard to find children’s historical fiction set in China. Rarer still to find books set in the 1970s, in Maoist China. Make that story a historical fantasy, and this may well be the only title to match.
Thirteen-year-old Ming lives in a small village in rural China with his father, the local director of antiquities. Ming’s father is charged with finding ancient artifacts and sending them on to the National Museum. But lately very little has been found, and there have been rumors that the entire department may be shut down, leaving Ming’s father out of a job. Already living in poverty and hunger, Ming suffers from the bullying and ostracism of the rural children who have been taught to reject scholars and intellectuals in favor of the “common man”. One day while his father is out of town, farmers approach Ming with the pieces of an old terra cotta soldier they have uncovered, wanting money for the discovery. To Ming’s surprise, when he brings the pieces inside, the clay head comes to life and starts talking to him. Shi tells the boy that he was a living man back in the time of Emperor Qin, and served in his army. His spirit remains now within the clay body he wears, which can walk and move and talk when he’s put back together. He is one of many such soldiers that guard the Emperor Qin’s tomb and protect it from discovery and theft . Shi promises to tell Ming stories of his own past if the boy will help him.
Shi recounts his life growing up and how he became a soldier, sharing details of his past adventures and his wish to get his father freed from labor on the Great Wall. The clay soldier is astounded by how much things have changed in the world and marvels at technology like the radio. The two young men gradually become friends. When Shi overhears a plot by corrupt officials to ransack the emperor’s tomb and then blow it up, selling the goods on the black market, he needs Ming to help him reach the other soldiers and warn them of the danger.
Ancient tombs, “living” clay soldiers, legends of China’s past intertwine with the realities of Communist China in the 70s. Shi is a sturdy optimist in many ways, a good balance for the more anxious and downtrodden Ming. Both young men are likable and accessible despite their differences and their friendship gives a solid warmth to the entire story. All of Ming’s hopes and dreams have been brutally crushed out of him, but Shi brings them back into flower. He tells Ming stories of his own life–one that while not so much better than Ming’s own, is full of rich history, color and detail. It contrasts starkly with the current bleak world Ming inhabits. The friendship that bonds the two boys is a wonderful thing, and remains throughout the entire adventure.
One of the notable elements of this story is that many of the historical events in this book are based on actual historical fact. A terra cotta soldiers was discovered by a farmer in 1976, and that discovery did lead to uncovering many more–although the tomb of Emperor Qin has never been excavated. There is information at the back of the book about the actual discoveries, and the trip the authors made to China. Historical photographs have been included throughout the book that correspond to the to events in the books: propaganda posters, statues, people and places. This has the effect of solidly placing this story in a place and time and giving it a firm grounding, despite the fantasy of the clay soldier come to life.
Ying Chang Compestine and her son, Vinson. worked on this book together. While it’s Ying Chang’s own memories of Maoist China that create the setting and really place a reader in that time period, it’s quite possible that it’s Vinson’s voice that gives these young men such a warmth and youthful spark. There’s a real freshness to this story that will appeal to readers, even those who aren’t particular fans of historical fiction or fantasy. It’s fun to read, and perhaps that makes all the difference. This writing duo weave a strong story that will keep readers turning pages.
Related nonfiction reading:
Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army by Michael Capek (Twenty-First Century Books, 2008) Hidden Army: Clay Soldiers of Ancient China by Jane O’Conner (Grosset and Dunlap, 2011) Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang (HarperTrophy, c1997)...more
The last time I encountered a story that used the legend of Prince Madoc as inspiration for the story, it was A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle. Apparently, it was a popular legend in the Colonial days. The story goes that long before Columbus ”discovered” America, a Welsh prince came to the shores of North America with some of his people. Rumors of Native Americans speaking Welsh and a lost kingdom of Welshmen fueled all sorts of searches and offers of reward for their discovery. Though in our reality, nothing ever came of the wild story, writers have taken the threads of the legend to inspire their own fantastic stories. Matthew J. Kirby takes his readers into a an alternate Colonial America where the threat of the French and Indian war is looming and a remarkable group of men have devised a plan . . .
Billy Bartram is about to undertake the adventure of a lifetime. His father, naturalist John Bertram and the renowned Benjamin Franklin are anxious that the French are ready to make their move and threaten the British colonies. In order to get the jump on the French and try and secure allies against the threat, a singular group of men from the Philosopher’s Society will embark on a flying ship in search of a legend. Billy can scarcely believe his luck at being included in the mission as his father’s assistant, but things don’t go quite as imagined for the intrepid explorers. Dangerous wildlife, violent storms and the whims of the crew make a risky journey into a deadly one, while the French are closing in. Kirby’s story is one of adventure, myth and fantasy woven into the backdrop of actual history.
Kirby isn’t shy about rewriting whole parts of the U.S. history for this story. While we meet characters of historical context (most notably Ben Franklin and Washington) many of the inventions and the frontier creatures that our explorers meet are not consistent with that historical period. The author has made good use of a variety of myths, from the Philosopher’s Stone, to the Fountain of Youth and paired this with wild legends of a Welsh kingdom in the frontier lands. Kirby’s landscape is reminiscent of the Frontier Magic series by Patricia Wrede, but without the slower pacing, quieter action and extra detail. While the setting is critical to the story and its outcome, the author’s main focus is his characters and the interactions between them.
Billy is our protagonist in this tale, and it is his journey, both physical and emotional, that readers are meant to follow. At the outset of our story, Billy is in utter awe of his father and has no doubt he wants to be like him. But as the journey gets underway, our hero quickly discovers sides to his father that he had not expected . . . and areas where they don’t agree. The changing interaction between Billy and his father is one of the main plot arcs in the novel. Where the alternate history and steampunk styled inventions might not be familiar to middle grade readers, Billy’s struggle to come to grips with who he is and how that differs from his parent will be one most kids can latch on to and identify with in some part. The other crew members on our flying ship are also vividly imagined, and complex individuals with conflicting motives and interests. My one disappointment in the character building has to remain with the single female character that is present in this story. I don’t believe I’m spoiling much by mentioning young Jane, since she’s clearly pictured on the cover of the book. Jane’s character never seems to fully take shape in the story and there is at least one glaring moment where her ineptitude puts the entire mission at risk. It may be I was more bothered by this than a younger reader would be, but my overall feeling is that Jane is used to conveniently forward the plot and give our character a friend of similar age without giving her enough of her own personality.
This book moves forward at a fairly fast clip that keeps us moving from crisis to crisis in fairly short order. While my adult self does tend to prefer a more leisurely pace for storytelling and events, this may work well for younger readers who prefer the constant action. The breathless adventure with its historical fantasy flavor manages to pack quite a punch for such a short book. Obviously there’s more than a little “steampunk” to this story (it’s more good evidence that steampunk has made its way firmly into the middle grade fiction) the flying ship on the cover of the book, the explorations of electricity, the creative weapons and inventions of our philosopher crew. The author clearly feels at home with the genre and is willing to explore it, with quite delightful results. I was thoroughly entertained . Reader’s who enjoyed the Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three (2010) and Icefall (2011) should definitely check this one out....more