Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Grace Lin has followed on to her Chinese fantasy-adventure novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon with a prequel, Starry River of the Sky, set about 150 years before the events in the first book and sharing some of the same characters, places, and artifacts.

Again, Grace writes children’s literature with unconventional structure and against conventional wisdom of how to tell stories to pre-teens. She devotes significant amounts of time to the actions and inner thoughts of adults; matter-of-factly shows behaviors like drunkenness, child abuse, and kidnapping; and demonstrates the psychological impacts those behaviors create. The story does not persist on negativity, however; the characters do what they think they need to do to move on (perhaps a good lesson for adults and children alike.)

Like the first book in this series, the key theme in Starry River is “running away.” Here, the main character, a boy named Rendi, has escaped his father’s tyranny. The family he encounters has suffered from its eldest brother running away, and the father running from his own feelings. The town he lands in has almost completely fled from environmental tragedy. Two mysterious travelers he befriends are far from their mythological roots, and even the moon itself has fled from the sky.

The structure of the two books are similar as well, as characters regularly pause in the action to tell stories of personal history and myth, in between events that happen in the story’s “real time.”

But in contrast to the first book, with all its characters in constant motion across vast distances, here the action stays mostly in one building (fittingly, a hotel), and all the characters have come to a stop in their travels.

And while Where the Mountain Meets the Moon incorporates elements of Chinese New Year folktales (defeating a supernatural child-eating beast, festivals involving an entire town, the yearning to go home to one’s family), Starry River of the Sky dives into tales of the Mid-Autumn Festival ( Earth having multiple suns which had to be destroyed, gathering to watch the moon, a pill of immortality).

At the end of both books, those who have run away decide to return to their homes, their hearts, their destinies. Starry River does not explicitly tell us what happens immediately afterward, but those characters’ later actions directly affect what happens in Mountain.

I wondered how my first-grader would handle the lack of “action” through the main part of the story, but I need not have worried: she was captivated with the well-paced character development and side stories. When the dramatic events finally come, it is the satisfying culmination of both what the characters have done in “real time” as well as through the long arc of mythology.  Like the earlier book, I’d say a third-grader would be able to handle most of this independently, and again it makes for great bedtime reading as the chapters are about 5 to 10 minutes long.

Do you need to have read Mountain to follow the events in Starry River? 

While it helps, each story can stand on its own. In fact, the books could even be read in opposite order without spoiling any surprises!

Do you need to be familiar with Chinese mythology to enjoy Starry River?

If you do know some of the stories and language, you’ll recognize some foreshadowing in character names and have fun comparing how the myths parallel what’s told in the book. However, Grace has given the gods some breathing room and a fresh interpretation. And in fact, for any given myth or historical person at any part of the year, you’ll find there are a number of folktales, some of which completely contradict each other!  

With this rich cast of characters’ families and well-imagined landscape of cities and countrysides, there’s plenty of room for several more books. My daughter is already asking if and when Grace will release the next volume! (She says to be looking for it in 2016!)


Standard blogging disclosure: we came across this book at our local bookstore and paid for it with our own funds.