Dori Jones Yang,
Daughter of Xanadu
Delacorte Press, 2011.
In 13th Century Mongolia the Kubilai Khan’s granddaughter Emmajin is about to turn fifteen, marking the shift from childhood to womanhood. Emmajin, however, is not like other girls. She has no intention of getting married and does everything she can to fend off prospective suitors. Her best friend is her (male) first cousin Suren. They horse-ride and practise archery together; and as far as Emmajin is concerned, nothing is going to change after her birthday – except that she is more determined than ever to become a soldier and gain honor for her family by great deeds on the battle-field.
Before contemplating her becoming a soldier, Emmajin’s grandfather gives her the task of finding out all she can about the homeland of certain visiting foreign merchants, in order to promote the Khan’s intentions to conquer the world. So enters into her life the Venetian Marco Polo; and so begins Emmajin’s actual growing-up, as she learns from Marco that there are different ways of doing and thinking. Her task is further complicated by her increasing attraction to him, and she soon finds herself facing dilemmas of loyalty and questioning the principles of conquest that she has grown up with.
Drawing on the Journeys of Marco Polo, Dori Jones Yang has created a fast-paced book that brings the Mongol Empire to life with plenty of historical detail. The story encompasses adventure, heartbreak and divided loyalties, and the exhilaration and challenges faced by a girl determined to make it on her own terms in a man’s world. Emmajin is a feisty, outspoken character, and the candid first-person narrative, complete with quandaries and attempts at self-justification, as well as acknowledgments of failings, means that readers will come to love Emmajin, even though her original tenets, founded in a culture bent on building empire, may be alienating to today’s readers. As the book progresses and Emmajin’s at times almost arrogant certainties are challenged, readers will be increasingly drawn to her.
Emmajin and Marco Polo’s relationship colors the whole book. As readers follow them through increasingly adventurous exploits, such as dragon-hunting and battle, the book becomes harder and harder to put down. From the start, Daughter of Xanadu challenges readers to ponder both their own views and their tolerance of others’ views; and by the end, we have not only found a friend in Emmajin, but also decided we would like to know what happens next…