Published: 11th January 2022
Trigger warnings: Injury detail
This was a buddy read with Pauliina @ The Bookaholic Dreamer, and it was our best one yet! As always I really enjoyed our discussions, and it was wonderful how enthralled we both were by this book.
Growing up on the moon, Xingyin is accustomed to solitude, unaware that she is being hidden from the feared Celestial Emperor who exiled her mother for stealing his elixir of immortality. But when Xingyin’s magic flares and her existence is discovered, she is forced to flee her home, leaving her mother behind.
Alone, powerless, and afraid, she makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom, a land of wonder and secrets. Disguising her identity, she seizes an opportunity to learn alongside the emperor’s son, mastering archery and magic, even as passion flames between her and the prince.
To save her mother, Xingyin embarks on a perilous quest, confronting legendary creatures and vicious enemies across the earth and skies. But when treachery looms and forbidden magic threatens the kingdom, she must challenge the ruthless Celestial Emperor for her dream – striking a dangerous bargain in which she is torn between losing all she loves or plunging the realm into chaos.
This book is like an extraordinary firework display, with a vibrancy and an iridescence that prompts unbridled intensity and exhilaration until long after the final spark has dissolved. Possessing a truly sumptuous writing style and a protagonist who is outstanding in just about every way, its epic and unpredictable narrative creates a mesmerising reading experience.
A retelling inspired by the Mid-Autumn Legend, it is awash with vivid and captivating depictions of Chinese mythology and has the world building to match, as a host of wonderfully realised locations and fascinating creatures are encountered along the way. In addition to that, there is whimsicality, romance, and moments of indescribable tension.
Xingyin is the daughter of the moon goddess Chang’ee, who became immortal after drinking an elixir that she stole from the Celestial Emperor, and has been in enforced exile ever since. For her whole life, Xingyin’s existence has been kept secret from the Celestial Kingdom, but one day her magic is sensed and along with her mother’s attendant Ping’er, she is forced to flee. However, they are soon separated and Xingyin is forced to fend for herself in the Immortal Realm, determined to do whatever it takes to earn her mother’s freedom.
Pretending to be an orphan, she finds work as a maid at the home of Lady Meiling, where she is treated with contempt by both her mistress and fellow servants. It is there that she meets Prince Liwei, the heir to the Celestial Kingdom, who is immediately struck by her boldness and headstrong personality. Despite her apparent lack of status, he allows her to enter a contest to become his study companion.
After three varied challenges and much to the fury of his mother, the Celestial Empress, Liwei declares Xingyin as the winner. In the months and years that follow, Xingyin’s magical abilities and skill as an archer grow immensely powerful, while she and Liwei develop an extremely close bond. But then a sudden announcement turns her happiness into heartbreak, so she takes up the offer to join the Celestial Army. Under the guidance of the seemingly inscrutable Captain Wenzhi, she sets her sights on being awarded the Crimson Lion Talisman and with it the chance to earn her mother’s freedom.
The plot is an absolute whirlwind. It is incredibly eventful and full of incident and detail from start to finish, all told at a surprisingly fast pace that never relents, yet still expertly manages to flesh out every aspect of the story from the numerous characters to the world and its enormous scope. That, along with its total unpredictability and the many tests Xingyin faces of her physical and mental resolve, make it a thoroughly breathtaking ride.
As all of those events are happening, it does allow you to immerse yourself in this fictional world, to learn of its various kingdoms and the creatures that inhabit them, as well as the occasional glimpse of its indulgences. It is actually in these moments where the author shows some brilliant flashes of inspiration, as some small details that initially appear insignificant end up carrying huge relevance later on.
A lot of the scenarios Xingyin is placed in over the course of the story are so intense or full of palpable trepidation that you are left hanging off the edge of your seat, almost afraid to read on due to the presence of mortal danger or unthinkable consequences. It reaches the most gasp-inducing point at a little way past the halfway mark when an astonishing sequence of events occurred that utterly destroyed me, and aside from that there are more unexpected twists to be found.
One such twist takes place not too far from the end, and that really changes the dynamic between the characters and goes on to shape much of what follows, including for the forthcoming sequel. It is quite sudden and adds even more to the intrigue along with a a greater sense of emotional complexity, and the way it plays out makes it another thrilling proposition.
Another prominent element of the plot is a love triangle, which can be a divisive trope but is executed very impressively here. The signs of a potential romance between Xingyin and Liwei are there fairly early on, and the arrival of the other individual in that equation comes as a bit of a curveball at first. This could have turned into a problem, but instead it creates something enticingly gripping, particularly with the events that follow.
The entire novel is written in the first person from Xingyin’s point of view, and she is an absolute delight to read. Her voice is so engaging and you root for her instantly, and the way she develops as a character across the years-long duration of the story is phenomenal, with her unshakeable determination combining perfectly with a fierce self-awareness.
It is hard not to be dazzled by Xingyin, whose commitment towards mastering everything she puts her mind to, and ability to think clearly and inventively in life-or-death situations is amazing. As well as showing strength and flashes of sheer audacity, she is also highly conscientious, virtuous, and acts as her own harshest critic. Altogether, it makes her pretty special.
Liwei brings so much to the story with his kindness and sense of humour, often coming across as someone with a glint in his eye but also right at the heart of some of the more emotional moments. There are times where you are frustrated by him and others where you feel sad for him, though either way his personality and charisma ensure he is easy to connect with.
Shuxiao is another very likeable character who will surely be developed more in the sequel, while many of the other supporting cast make a genuine impression. Among those we have the hard but fair General Jianyun, the petulant Lady Meiling, villainous Lady Hualing, and the rulers of the Fragrant Coral Palace, of whom Price Yanming is especially entertaining.
Arguably the most complex character of all is Captain Wenzhi, who comes across at first as quietly authoritative and dignified, only for there to be a lot more to him than what you see on the surface. His relationship with Xingyin is intriguing as it goes from mutual respect to something that is more affectionate. As for Liwei’s parents, the Celestial Emperor is calculating in his thirst for power, and the Celestial Empress is just pure rage.
Then we have the mythical creatures. The dragons enter the story at a relatively late stage and it was rather lovely to see how they are portrayed as peaceful and somewhat retiring, although their immense power goes on to play a very key part. I also really enjoyed the section involving the merfolk, who are much less commonly seen in the fantasy genre.
The world building is excellent, beginning with vivid descriptions of Xingyin’s home within the moon and then continuing into the various palaces and kingdoms she ventures to in the Immortal Realm. Each one brings something different, with subtle emphasis placed on their cultures and attitudes, whereas there is another change of tone when the characters visit the Mortal Realm.
Along with Xingyin, the biggest revelation in this book is the writing, which is nothing short of stunning. It is poetic and eloquent, as every sentence is strung together beautifully and not a single word is wasted, moving the plot forward quickly without leaving anything unsaid or lacking sufficient depth. The battle scenes are also well executed, and alongside the action these contain some of the most meaningful passages.
The only time where the pace really calms down is at the end, which acts as a reasonably smooth conclusion and does not contain a cliffhanger. That is fine, as we already know that there is so much to come in the sequel, with vast potential to expand the world and its mythology further, as well as sub-plots involving other characters such as Chang’ee, Shuxiao, and the mysterious Minister Wu.
Overall, this book was a delight to behold and there is not a single dull moment to be found. Its thrilling plot delivers moments which raise the stakes sky-high and leave you audibly gasping, yet the writing and all its emotiveness and attention to detail is what brings it to life. As fantasy retellings go, it does not get much better than this.
Sue Lynn Tan was born in Malaysia and now lives in Hong Kong, having studied in London and France. She developed a love of fantasy novels as a child after being gifted a collection of fairytales by her father, and eventually aspired to be an author.
Daughter Of The Moon Goddess is her debut novel and in the acknowledgements section she is very humble, but I can say that on this evidence she is a fantastic writer. The sequel is entitled Heart Of The Sun Warrior, and will be released later this year.
My favourite book of the year so far! It was magical and I loved just about everything about it.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐