I’ve never read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but the beauty of companion novels is that they can be read in any order. Starry River takes place in the same mystical world where Chinese folktales come to life. It’s also the first Grace Lin novel about a boy, Rendi, who’s run away from home. He ends up at the Village of Clear Sky, working reluctantly as the innkeeper’s chore boy. Rendi spends his days teasing Peiyi, the innkeeper’s daughter, learning how to sweep and clean and fetch water (it’s obvious he’s never worked a day in his life) and trying to solve a number of mysteries. Why did the moon disappear? Who’s making that awful racket at night? And why does Madame Chang, a guest at the inn, keep quizzing Rendi about his past?
Rendi’s past is key to his journey. He’s trying to escape his father by reinventing himself, but there are moments when he acts just like his father, and it terrifies him. Others around him are equally lost. Peiyi misses her brother, who’s run away from home. The innkeeper and his neighbor are entangled in a bitter feud with no end in sight. Mr. Shan, one of the inn’s guests, keeps muttering about a lost book. They start to find themselves when Madame Chang tells them folktales. The stories bring them together, and the more the book progresses, the harder it is to separate village life from the legends. Things from folktales keep popping up for real: like the toad that Mr. Shan adopts as a pet; and the moon, missing from the night sky but powerfully present in the old tales. It’s fun sifting through the clues to find how the worlds collide. Lin makes every detail count: seemingly innocent motifs like fermented tofu and pesky garden snails are all crucial to the plot—it’s like an intricate puzzle à la When You Reach Me, without the time travel.
Lin’s writing is also quite different from her Pacy novels, more elegant and lyrical. It definitely fit the mood. Take this nighttime scene when Madame Chang scatters embers into the yard:
Madame Chang pulled a delicate, thin cloth from her neck. With a swift motion, the sheer fabric billowed over the flashing sparks as if capturing them in a diaphonous cloud.
Indeed, they were captured, for after Madame Chang knotted the cloth, she was holding a soft, glowing bag of light…
Peiyi looked closely, and her face transformed from timidity to joyful wonder. “Fireflies!” she whispered, enchanted. “It’s a firefly lantern!”
But there are times when the writing got too descriptive, when I could have used more showing and less telling. When Rendi tells the story of an ambitious man (Magistrate Tiger) who tricked a duke, the deception is pretty obvious. Rendi describes how the Magistrate set up the ploy with his son as an unwitting participant. The boy then accidentally sees the duke being duped, after which,
The duke turned around that began to walk back to the house. Magistrate Tiger moved to follow him, but before he turned, a look of triumphant conceit flashed on his face. The boy felt a shock run through him. It had been a trick!
“Triumphant conceit” was just overkill. The Magistrate’s actions and character made the deceit very clear, so that extra bit of description pulled me out of the story.
Luckily, these moments were rare, and for the most part I was transported into Lin’s fantastical world (the title, by the way, is a direct translation of the Chinese phrase for the Milky Way—and not the candy bar). Some readers have complained about the ending, which they say fit together too well. It didn’t bother me. I could see the direction that everything was headed for and really enjoyed how Lin took care of all the dangling threads. She did leave room for a plausible sequel, though Rendi’s internal journey is quite complete. I hear a third companion novel is in the works; in the meantime, I can still look forward to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
On the cover: isn’t it brilliant? There are also full-color interior illustrations–all Lin’s work, so you know you’re in good hands.