Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road came highly recommended to me. I knew nothing about the author, but upon finishing this fantasy historical fiction, was not surprised to learn that her first novel Three Souls was a finalist for the 2013 BC Book Prizes Fiction Award among other awards.
Sometimes, heroines let me down. I get frustrated with others’ flaws and characters can often leave me feeling betrayed by their bad choices. Because, dammit, I ought to be able to find perfectly balanced people, even fictional ones – no Mary-Sues, no anti-heroes, just the kind of amazing character you could name your daughter after. I want something that’s idealistic and unreal. And generally, I want it all the time.
In any case, Chang’s heroine Jialing did not disappoint me.
Jialing is born zazhong – Eurasian. And as Chang’s story progressed, I started to understand just what that meant in early 1900s China. A girl who was neither fully Chinese nor fully Caucasian was once seen by both groups as a betrayal of race, a mistake, a shameful thing come to life. When Jialing’s mother abandons her, the girl becomes a bondservant for the wealthy Yang family.
I expected this portion of Dragon Springs Road to morph into something Cinderella-ish, or at least to mirror Fanny Price’s experience at Mansfield Park – great book, by the way – but it didn’t. As Jialing grows into a young woman, there is no foolish pining after the young man of the house. What does occur is a firm, womanly friendship between Jialing and her respectable counterpart, Anjuin, whom she continues to serve. And it comes with all of the rewards and complications that a friendship of that kind entails.
At one point, young Jialing is offered an education at a Christian missionary school. The experience refines her, but the xenophobic nastiness indicative of the time period haunts her through her bigoted and privileged classmates. She is one of only three multiracial students at the school.
But I’m nearly forgetting one of the most important characters in the book, perhaps even more important than Jialing!
Fox is an animal spirit who lives in the courtyard of the Yang’s western residence. She has been there for centuries, and from time to time, Fox decides to interact with humans she feels an affinity for. Fox spirits can use their magic to greatly influence human lives and Jialing’s mother, when living there, devoutly burned incense to a Fox spirit. Adding this concept to the already dreamlike Dragon Springs Road, baptizes it a historical fiction with fantasy elements.
Speaking of style, Chang is a natural. This is past-perfect, first-person, grade-A goodness with no slip-ups. From time-to-time, there are breaks in the narrative that morph seamlessly into lucid dreams through Fox’s eyes, wherein Jialing experiences firsthand all that the animal is seeing. Lush fields, lonely mountains, glassy ponds. Because of Fox’s influence, Jialing has an advocate in her harsh world.
Expect some harrowing bits if you decide to pick up this book. Jialing’s combined educated manner of speech, carriage, and her family connection to the Yang’s are enough to garner attention from some very important people. And important people in those days were either trying to establish a republic or thwarting others’ efforts to. Observant young women needed to be careful of what they saw.
You didn’t ask, but while I was listening to this audiobook, I was actually healing from a mental breakdown. I had Janie Chang’s words in my ears and spent a lot of time hiking, humming to myself. Dragon Springs Road was long enough to be comforting and exciting enough to distract me. Plus, I found Chang’s style to be flawless, and I trusted my literary consciousness to her happily.
Dragon Springs Road took twists and turns I never expected it to, but in Chang’s capable hands, I was happy to ride along.