Summary: Kaiya’s voice could charm a dragon. Had she lived when the power of music could still summon typhoons and rout armies, perhaps Cathay’s imperial court would see the awkward, gangly princess as more than a singing fool. With alliances to build and ambitious lords to placate, they care more about her marriage prospects than her unique abilities. Only the handsome Prince Hardeep, a foreign martial mystic, recognizes her potential. Convinced Kaiya will rediscover the legendary but perilous art of invoking magic through music, he suggests her voice, not her marriage, might better serve the realm. When members of the emperor’s elite spy clan– Kaiya’s childhood friend and his half-elf sidekick (or maybe he’s her sidekick?)– discover mere discontent boiling over into full-scale rebellion, Kaiya must choose. Obediently wedding the depraved ringleader means giving up her music. Confronting him with the growing power of her voice could kill her.
Review: I want to start off this review by stating outright that I’m not really qualified to talk about the accuracy of various cultural aspects of this novel. I have no background in Chinese studies, little knowledge of Mandarin Chinese beyond, “Yes,” “No,” “My name is [name],” and, “I want tea,” and I do not have any Chinese ancestry. So it should be left to people wiser and more knowledgeable than me to say whether or not this book has a good portrayal of Chinese culture at any point through China’s history. I’m not the one to make that judgment.
The story is based on historical China, at least, though for me it lies somewhere between historical fantasy and secondary-world fantasy, given that as much as there are referenced to the country being called Cathay, the Great Wall, and a load of other little things that peg it as historical, it also makes references to multiple moons, which makes me think secondary-world. Either way, the feel is very much “ancient China,” with a few other cultures thrown in for good measure. It does make it a welcome change from the glut of western-based fantasies, for certain.
I do like Kang’s writing style. it’s fluid, it’s clear, and it moves the story along well. There’s some good detail in here that manages to balance giving the reader a good image of an unfamiliar culture without bogging the whole thing down with too much description in an attempt to explain everything that might not be 100% clear to every reader We don’t need to know exactly what Dian-xia translates to in order to pick up that it’s the formal title of the princess.
From the description, the story is largely about the young princess Kaiya, though to be perfectly honest, Kaiya’s part in the novel could have been skipped without losing very much. She has magical talent that manifests through music, reportedly powerful enough that she could subdue dragons, but for the most part, her chapters involve her mooning over Prince Hardeep, a visiting noble from Ankira who has little personality and spends his time on the pages trying to guide Kaiya into doing exactly what he wants her to do. The story happens to Kaiya, not because of her, and it gets tedious to read. Pretty much until close to the end, the most contribution she makes to the story is to agree to marry an abusive lord for political reasons. And practice musical magic while thinking longingly of Hardeep.
Kaiya may play a greater role in the story in the rest of the series, but here she’s largely passive and not particularly interesting. Even looking at it from the standpoint of young romance, I couldn’t really get into her sections. Hardeep wasn’t that interesting or developed, and it seemed like her only interest in him stemmed from his good looks and the fact that he was nice to her. And from that she’s willing to go along with dangerous and troublesome ideas for literally no other reason than because he says so. We don’t really see anything from his perspective, so all we see of him is through he eyes of someone besotted, and even that doesn’t make him compelling.
Far more interesting were Tian and Jie, who have far more defined personalities, infiltrate political plots, take part in espionage and combat and all sorts of things, and generally do more to uncover the meat of the plot than Kaiya does. I would have rather read the whole story from Jie’s perspective, honestly, than flip back and forth between her and Kaiya. She takes a more active role through the whole book, is sarcastic, is in a great position to provide commentary on how people don’t take her seriously because of her presumed maturity… Seriously, Jie was the star of this book, not Kaiya.
There’s a rather unique cultural mish-mash going on in this book that is worth talking about, and I feel I can at least comment on it even if I don’t make any “this is wrong/right” judgments. While the story is told in a Chinese-inspired area, and there are mentions of other places that I believe are inspired at least by India (and possibly a couple of other places I couldn’t entirely identify), there’s also some pieces of western Europe and its mythologies thrown in. Both Asian- and European-style dragons are said to exist. There’s mentions of elves and dwarves, and though no really solid description is given of either of them barring the fact that elves have pointed ears, it seems a fair assumption that they’re the elves and dwarves that we think of when we think of Lord of the Rings, for instance. These people aren’t commonly seen in the book, having their own homelands and own affairs to tend to, but they do show up every now and again. Often with Cathayi names, though that might be a nod to the culture they’re all hanging out in rather than their actual names, I’m not sure. Regardless, there are enough references to other places and cultures that The Dragon Scale Lute feels like it’s taking place in one small part of a much larger world, which is something that I often see ignored in fantasy novels. Unless characters are actually traveling that larger world, any multiculturalism tends to get left by the wayside, and it was good to see something where that wasn’t the case.
While the overall combination of political intrigue and magic and a non-western setting definitely made this book stand out to me, I think its real weakness is the utter lack of character in Kaiya, who is ostensibly the main character of the whole story. The writing was decent, but it wasn’t enough to really keep me going through sections in which nothing related to either plot or character-building actually happened, and that spoiled what could otherwise have been a really good book, especially considering that Kaiya’s POV was about half of the novel. Maybe it would appeal to younger readers or those who enjoy a mooning one-sided romance, but that’s not the sort of story that appeals to me, and that aspect rather spoiled it for me, unfortunately.