Dragonwings by Laurence Yep

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(mild spoilers)

By way of introductory remarks, let me start that while I first learned of Laurence Yep and Dragonwings in a fantasy encyclopedia, I am not one hundred per cent convinced this is a fantasy book. I find the why of that interesting though, and it’s a good book with a lot of appeal to most fantasy readers, so let’s talk about it.

It is the tale of Lee Moon Shadow, a Chinese boy who travels to the United States in 1903 to join his father who is working there. Moon Shadow comes of age as he witnesses how his countrymen, the Tang, live and are treated in this foreign land.

The book is well written and moves quickly as well as thoughtfully. It leans heavily into the concept of this being from the perspective of a Chinese boy; conversations in English are written in italics to denote them being a foreign language to him, and he often refers to Americans as demons. Some do act like demons to him; others show great friendship and kindness. You can usually tell which ahead of time. Dragonwings was written for a fairly young audience and isn’t a book full of twists and surprises, just a book full of details and good language.

One of the details – and here we get into the possible fantasy conceit – is that Moon Shadow’s father believes he was a dragon in a previous life due to a dream he had. He longs to prove himself worthy of being a dragon again, and part of that is building an airplane, taking part of the story of Feng Ru to do so.

Does a dream in an otherwise mimetic story equal fantasy? Can their beliefs be construed that way, and should they? It seems quite insensitive to insist so.

I’ve started to call this sort of story a fantasy invite (see also: Magical Realism), something that might be considered so solely by western cultural standards but maybe not by other cultures. I do not wish to tell them their culture is fantasy, I do not wish to tell them it can’t be considered fantasy if they so choose. If we do consider it fantasy though, this is an important book and Laurence Yep an important author, preceding Michelle Sagara West as the first author of note with East Asian heritage that I am aware of by about fifteen years.

Still, while this is interesting to me, it’s probably not the main reason most will be considering reading it. The reason is its merit, which it retains. Anyone looking for a novel for the young that’s full of historical accuracy, not without pain but mostly not dark, could do a lot worse than look here.

3 thoughts on “Dragonwings by Laurence Yep

  1. If dreaming of or believing in a fantasy element made a book fantasy, wouldn’t that put loads of historical fiction into that category? Mary Renault’s characters treat the Greek gods as real, for example. And then why would you exclude anyone who believes in any other deity?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Quest Log the Last

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