After a lifetime of hiding under an assumed name, Hu Lian’s life has turned around with a full scholarship to the (fictional) Minghua University. But when the Japanese begin to steamroll across the former Chinese Empire, the university is evacuated inland. Only thousands of miles can keep the students and the university’s priceless (also fictional) Library of Legends, the remaining section of an ancient encyclopedia that collects China’s myths, folklore, and legends. The Library of Legends, by Janie Chang, is based on historic events; Chinese universities upped stakes and traveled for miles to safety, taking irreplaceable documents with them. Chang adds supernatural elements to this harrowing tale of historical survival as her protagonists are accompanied by fleeing mythical city gods, river guardians, and more.
Lian is one of my favorite kinds of protagonists. First, she is very observant. She sees important things that other people miss in their hurry to get on with whatever they’re doing. Second, she wants to do the right thing no matter how characters try to get her to bend her own rules. At the beginning of their exodus, Lian worries about finding her mother. Lian’s scholarship divided them. All she knows is that her mother will try to get to the foreign Settlement in Shanghai, one of the few safe places on China’s east coast. But as the miles roll past and the students and faculty put the invading Japanese in their rear view, Lian gets caught up in China’s other great fight: the efforts of the Nationalists to squash the nascent Communists. The university’s agent of the Juntong, who work to root out Communists, blackmails Lian to spy on her friends and inform him about any Communist activity.
Meanwhile, Lian’s new friend, Shao, is in the middle of his own story. Shao’s servant, called Sparrow, reveals herself as a servant of the Queen of Heaven to one of Shao and Lian’s more enlightened professors. Centuries ago, Sparrow bargained with the Queen of Heaven to accompany her great love through his various lives. The bad news for Sparrow is that Shao never remembers her or his previous lives. At the same time, Sparrow is passing on the message to every supernatural creature and being she comes across to let them know that the Queen of Heaven will keep her gates open for one year. Everyone is welcome back if they can make it in time. Lian occasionally glimpses these beings, though she doubts herself for a long time.
There is so much going on in The Library of Legends that my small but overstuffed summary barely scratches the surface of what happens in this riveting, imaginative novel. Chang uses history, legend, and solid character development to build a terrific story about obligation and purpose. What do we owe each other? Which side is the right one to fight for? How do we deal with feelings of unrequited love? All of this creates plenty of narrative tension against an already high stakes background. This book is an incredible read, especially for readers of historical fiction who like the odd touch of the supernatural.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.