Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin: Chinese folktales and a missing moon
See also Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Overall rating: 8.5/10
Quality of writing: 9/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): minimal
Age level: 8 and up
Rendi, a runaway boy with an unknown history, finds himself stranded in the tiny Village of Clear Sky, much to his displeasure. However, as he begins unraveling the mystery of why the moon seems to have mysteriously vanished—a question entangled with the village’s inhabitants themselves—he slowly forms relationships with the villagers, helping to solve some of their own problems.
Inspired by multiple Chinese folktales, Starry River of the Sky is an engaging mixture of fantastical and personal storylines, including multiple frame stories which uncover the characters’ own pasts. By the end of the book, not only has Rendi finally revealed his previously hidden origins to the villagers, but he also has become far more selfless and kind. Overall, this is an excellent story, especially in terms of its themes of personal growth; I recommend it particularly to fans of Grace Lin’s work, but more generally to any reader looking for a relatively simple but heartwarming tale.
The book’s main plot deals with the fact that for some unknown reason, the moon has vanished from the sky and mournful crying noises ring from the sky every night instead. This may admittedly seem a bit far-fetched, but in the context of Lin’s folktale-inspired world, she manages to make it believable— in addition, as the story progresses, it is revealed that several of the villagers are actually involved in some way with the missing moon. Especially in the story’s ending (which I won’t spoil), she ties up the “missing moon” plot line with several others, making it less farfetched than it might at first seem.
However, while the main plot deals with the strange absence of the moon, the plot line which gets the most narrative focus is Rendi’s own personal development. Barring a few references to the “missing moon” plot here and there, the majority of the story deals with Rendi transitioning from an angry, stranded runaway who just wants to escape the village, to a more selfless boy who genuinely cares for the villagers. Along the way, several side plots arise, as he helps the villagers sort out problems of their own (such as a plague of snails, which turn out to be good to eat; or an attempted kidnapping by ruffianly soldiers). Overall, the several plots of Starry River of the Sky are deal primarily with Rendi’s personal development and helping others, but are framed within the larger plot dealing with the missing moon. (8/10)
Rendi is, of course, the protagonist, and as I’ve mentioned above, he receives some very nice development over the course of the book. Through helping the villagers and hearing the stories they tell, he develops from an initially selfish and petulant character to a more mature one.
Other characters include Master Chao, owner of the inn where Rendi is stranded in the first chapter of the book; Widow Yan, the next-door neighbor who makes excellent but smelly fermented tofu; and Peiyi, Master Chao’s daughter (who is about Rendi’s age). The greatest strength of Lin’s characters is their distinctive and personable details, and Starry River of the Sky does not disappoint in this area— part of the fun of reading this book is simply seeing the unique people through whom the story plays out.
In addition— possibly the most interesting aspect of Lin’s characters— some of them are not exactly who they seem to be. Although these characters appear to be normal people throughout the story, they are revealed at the end to be various benevolent supernatural beings from Chinese folklore. Lin does an excellent job of foreshadowing this through multiple smaller stories set within the larger frame story. (8/10)
Starry River of the Sky is not particularly difficult, as books go. The length is manageable (288 pages in my edition) and the style is fairly straightforward, barring the occasional story told by the characters (which each has its own setting and characters). The only potential area of difficulty may be in keeping the several villagers’ names straight, although there really are relatively few mentioned, and this should not pose a major problem for most readers. Overall, this book merits a 3/10 on difficulty.
Quality of writing
As I mentioned before, one of the greatest strengths of Lin’s writing is her use of Chinese folklore in crafting her story: fantastical characters and events appear not only in the stories characters tell, but also in the actual events of the story itself. These allusions lend the story an aspect of realism, and, as Lin herself states in the afterword, are a way for her to “rediscover” her Chinese heritage.
Furthermore, the dialogue and interaction between characters are quite well-written: in a story such as this, dealing with the protagonist’s personal growth, such details are obviously important, and Lin does a masterful job of creating scenes that get readers invested in the action— even something so simple as finding a solution to a horde of annoying snails. (9/10)
The level of concerning content in this book is minimal, and there are only a few minor points that require noting. There are a few scenes that might be a bit scary for younger readers— one where the protagonists make an imitation version of the spooky “Noxious Toad” from Chinese folklore to scare two kidnappers, one where a character tells a story about a fearsome magical tiger, and another where Rendi encounters a strange giant toad (who turns out to actually be one of the villagers). However, none of these should prove to be too much of a problem for most readers. In addition, the kidnappers are described as “swearing” once (but no actual questionable words are said). Overall, Starry River of the Sky has no major concerning content that readers or parents should worry about.
Based on this book’s readable style, mid- to short length, and overall lack of major concerning content, I have chosen to recommend it for readers age 8 and up. However, readers and parents of readers should always exercise their own good judgement in this area: readers both older and younger than my suggested age range may well be able to enjoy this book, depending on their personal reading level.