Janie Chang’s MIND y’all.
The Library of Legends was SO GOOD. It was so magical, imaginative, and full of adventure and mystery. The story took so many turns and was full of this magical nostalgia. The magical elements reminded me of something we would see straight out of a studio ghibli movie, while the historical aspect of the war was so well-planned and well-researched. Seeing the two—magic and reality—move in parallel throughout the book gave me shivers.
The Library of Legends begins by following Hu Lian, a university student with a mysterious past in 1937 China. When Lian’s university makes preparations to flee thousands of miles to safety, Lian’s evacuation group is entrusted with caring for the Library of Legends, a five-hundred-year-old collection of Chinese folklore. Although once part of a large collection of knowledge, now only the myths survive. As the students make their way West, Lian is forced to confront her past and when political tensions rise among the group, Lian flees the group with the help of Liu Shaoming (Shao) and his servant, Sparrow. However, as they journey, Lian makes a connection between her travel companions and a tale from the Library of Legends, learning of the spiritual world, and another exodus taking place—one that will change the country’s fate forever.
I LOVED this story. For me, the biggest strength was the world building. Growing up in the U.S., I didn’t know much about the Second Sino-Japanese War before this novel. The setting of traveling across a dangerous, war-torn country felt so real, and the story of the students journeying together, attempting to study while facing disease and the danger of Japanese bombings creating such a swirl of adventure and desperation. It strangely reminded me of Parable of the Sower, although obviously there are quite different circumstances between the two novels. The journeys Lian and her companions take across China created such a compelling, magical story.
The main characters in this novel was Lian and her friends Shao and Sparrow — although there are many minor characters that play pivotal roles in the story. Lian really surprised me with how much character depth emerged throughout the novel, and I loved that she was so devoted in her goals. Shao felt a little flat, or perhaps a little lost, although the reason for that becomes clear as the story goes on. Sparrow was a really interesting character—although her motivations from the beginning are clear, she is so wise and has so much depth.
In terms of the writing, I really loved Janie Chang’s writing style. She was really clear and direct, but could also be really descriptive, especially visually. For all that happens in this novel, I found the pacing to be done really well. I especially loved the way she integrated the magical elements into the story—it felt natural. I could really see this becoming a movie or a limited series.
This was definitely a five-star read for me. I absolutely love magical realism, which is how I would categorize this book. The story was incredibly magical and compelling and well-crafted to create an unforgettable story. If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli films, the Percy Jackson series, or books about long journeys, like Parable of the Sower, or Exit West, you’ll enjoy this book. I hope I can pick up more of Janie Chang’s books in the future!